By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 2, 2009 - The number of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq in 2008 fell two-thirds compared to the previous year, underscoring an improvement in security amid upcoming provincial elections. Last year's casualty figure -- 314 -- marks a sharp reduction from 2007 when 904 troops died. The 2008 tally comes on the heels of a week in which the number of daily attacks in Iraq dropped nearly 95 percent compared to the same time last year.
"This is a dramatic improvement of safety throughout the country," Army Brig. Gen. David G. Perkins, a Multinational Force Iraq spokesman, told reporters in Baghdad last week, when the average number of daily attacks in Iraq was 10, compared to 180 a year earlier.
He added that the country's murder rates have dropped below levels that existed before the start of American operations in Iraq. In November, the ratio was .9 per 100,000 people.
Military and Defense Department officials have attributed security gains over the past year to a host of factors, including the now-completed surge of U.S. forces, Sunni fighters aligning themselves with Iraqi and coalition forces to help purge al-Qaida and maintain security, and a cease-fire pledge by prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controlled several militias.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen some 80 percent since the surge of 33,000 U.S. forces began in January 2007.
Speaking in October about the reduced bloodshed in Iraq, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized the role of reinvigorated counterinsurgency tactics.
Put simply, counterinsurgency is a form of warfare in which a civilian population is in the center of a tug-of-war between an insurgency and the forces attempting to stop it. The Army and Marine Corps in late 2006 published a counterinsurgency strategy written by a host of contributors, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who implemented its tenets while serving for 20 months as the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
"In my view, what really turned it around was the counterinsurgency tactics our troops embraced and perfected," Mullen said Oct. 8 at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference.
While the security gains are significant, Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Multinational Force Iraq commander, warned in an interview with reporters in Baghdad last month against becoming complacent amid Iraq's improved security, a transfer of authority to Iraqi forces and an upcoming election.
"In military terms, transitions are the most dangerous times," the general said Dec. 23. "What we're trying to do is make sure we don't have any seams in our transition."
A piece of legislation hammered out by Washington and Baghdad -- known as the Status of Forces Agreement -- went into effect yesterday. The agreement supersedes the United Nations mandate for the coalition presence in Iraq, and transfers military operational authority to Iraqi forces with U.S. forces assuming a support, or "overwatch," role.
The deal becomes effective ahead of the scheduled Jan. 31 provincial elections in Iraq, which Odierno characterized as the next security test for combined forces.
"Al-Qaida will try to exploit the elections because they don't want them to happen. So I think they will attempt to create some violence and uncertainty in the population," he said. "The next 60 days are a critical period."