By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
an. 8, 2009 - Iraq has witnessed "some remarkable milestones" already this month, with more on the horizon, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said today. The new status-of-forces and strategic framework agreements took effect Jan. 1, "marking a new day in our relations with Iraq," he said. In other developments, the United States formally turned control of the International Zone in Baghdad over to Iraqi security forces Jan. 1. Four days later, the United States opened its new embassy in Baghdad, reflecting what Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker called "a new era" for Iraq and the Iraqi-U.S. relationship.
Other milestones will be reached in the months ahead. Historic provincial elections are just four weeks away, and are expected to draw 15 million voters who will vote from a field of 14,000 candidates. Two national elections are scheduled in Iraq later this year.
"So there is ... much to be encouraged by in Iraq thus far this year," Morrell said.
Meanwhile, he noted, security continues to improve in Iraq. Violence in 2008 was down 65 percent from the previous year, and high-profile attacks were down 55 percent.
Security incidents in December numbered fewer than 600. "That is the lowest number since the summer of 2003, just after the invasion," he said.
The U.S. military lost 312 members in Iraq last year, compared to 886 in 2008. "One is too many, but that is a stunning, stunning drop in casualties in Iraq," Morrell said.
Security challenges continue, he conceded, pointing to recent high-profile attacks as examples. "Al-Qaida and some of the [Iranian-backed] special groups remain a threat to peace and stability in that country, and that's why there is still a requirement for U.S. forces on the ground," he said.
Morrell noted other measures of progress. Electricity production, in megawatts, is up 25 percent, with most of Iraq receiving an average of 16 hours of power per day. Oil production is up, too, up to 100 percent in the north, Morrell said.
No decisions have yet been made about additional troop drawdowns in Iraq, he said.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, at Balad Air Base during his visit to Iraq in December.
"They had an excellent discussion about some of the initial planning that General Odierno is considering for drawdowns in this year," Morrell said. "But I don't believe that we have come to any conclusion yet as to how that will take place."