In Milestone, Month Passes With No U.S. Soldier Killed in Iraqhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
BAGHDAD — Under increased pressure from the United States, an Iraqi crackdown on Iranian-backed Shiite militias has helped produced a previously elusive goal: For the first time since the American invasion of Iraq, an entire month has passed without a single United States service member dying.
The milestone is particularly remarkable because it comes after 14 troops were killed in July, making it the most deadly month for the Americans in three years, and it has occurred amid a frightening campaign of suicide bombings and assassinations from Sunni insurgents that killed hundreds of Iraqis, resurrecting the specter of the worst days of sectarian fighting.
“If you had thought about a month without a death back during the surge in 2007, it would have been pretty hard to imagine because we were losing soldiers every day, dozens a week,” said Col. Douglas Crissman, who is in charge of American forces in four provinces of southern Iraq and oversaw a battalion in Anbar Province during the troop increase. “I think this shows how far the Iraqi security forces have come.”
None of the roughly 48,000 troops in Iraq were killed in August, a remarkable if fragile achievement, officials said. In all, 4,465 American soldiers have died here since the United States invasion in 2003, according to Defense Department figures.
American military commanders attribute the drop in deaths to the Iraqi government finally pushing back against Iran and the Shiite militias, as well as aggressive unilateral strikes by United States forces. If the Americans are correct, and August is not just a statistical blip, it may also be connected to the continuing negotiations between American and Iraqi officials over whether to leave some troops behind after the end of the year, experts said. Though all sides in Iraq have said they want the Americans to leave, each has some interest in seeing that some troops stay behind.
The Iraqi government continues to rely on American forces and expertise to preserve security. Shiite militias would lose some of their rationale for existence and Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents could lose a useful foil. For the United States, domestic political concerns would also make it easier to sell an extension to a war-weary public if there were fewer causalities.
“The militia groups involved are being paid by the Iranians to make trouble for the Americans, and that means that their main objective is no longer there if the Americans withdraw all their troops," said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy program director for the Middle East. "It doesn’t mean they won’t exist altogether but their violence will be harder to justify.”
American military and diplomatic officials said Iraq has not only pressed the militias, but also sent word directly to Tehran to back off on attacks. The Iranians had used the militias, which are primarily based in the southern part of the country and Baghdad, to wage a proxy battle with the Americans for dominance and influence in Iraq. Those militias were responsible for 12 of the 14 deaths in June, many the result of rocket or mortar attacks on military bases.
American officials increased pressure on Iraqis to clamp down after the spate of attacks in June, and Iraq eventually responded. The government increased its counterterrorism operations against the militias, brought judges from Baghdad into the southern part of the country to ensure those captured were not summarily released, and replaced poorly performing generals, officials said.
Colonel Crissman, who worked with the Iraqi forces, said that at times they needed some additional prodding. “We did targeting on our own and some hand holding of the Iraqis,” he said.
In July, nearly two-thirds of the Iraqi counterterrorism missions were aimed at Iranian-backed militias, compared with just a fifth of all missions in the first six months of the year. In the first half of the year the Shiite-led government focused on Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups, according to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the military’s top spokesman in Iraq.
The operations and diplomatic efforts, according to American officials, significantly reduced the number of rocket attacks on military bases, particularly in southern Iraq where the militias most frequently operate. In a single day in July, a base in the southern province of Maysan was attacked with rockets 43 times. The attacks in southern Iraq were so bad in July that the United States military took the unusual step of bombing open swaths of desert with a C-130 gunship and an Apache helicopter in the middle of the night to try and deter the militias.
“We used them out here as a demonstration to say these are the capabilities we have and we are willing to use it to protect ourselves,” Colonel Crissman said.
The crackdown and the American use of force appear to have helped. In August, there were days when none of the American bases in southern Iraq received incoming fire.
“I wish U.S. service members could take full credit for being responsible for this but it’s absolutely a combination of things coming together, particularly the Iraqis acting against the militias,” Colonel Crissman said.
Ali al-Moussawi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said, “Part of the reason for the drop in troop deaths has been the growth and development of the Iraqi security forces.
“Providing security for the citizens and every one inside of Iraq is the duty of the government, even the foreign troops that are in Iraq legally,” Mr. Moussawi said. “The security breaches we’ve had in Iraq are not because of the militias. The security breaches we’ve had have been suicide bombers and other kinds of attacks. That is what worries us now.”
Colonel Crissman and other military officials cautioned that the August figures did not mean that Iraq was suddenly safe, either for the United States military or the Iraqis. They said that as the United States began to withdraw its troops in the coming months, there would likely be a resurgence in attacks as militias and insurgents tried to claim responsibility for pushing the Americans out of Iraq.
As much as the Iraqis have clamped down on the militias, their security forces are still struggling to thwart attacks from Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgents. On Aug. 15, those insurgents pulled off a devastating series of coordinated attacks across Iraq, killing more than 90 people and wounding more than 300. None of those attacks, however, were aimed at Americans.Since then, there have been several suicide bomb attacks, including one inside a mosque on Sunday that killed more than 30 Iraqi civilians.