- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

BAGHDAD - U.S. military deaths plunged in May to the lowest monthly level in more than four years and civilian casualties were down sharply, too, as Iraqi forces assumed the lead in offensives in three cities and a truce with Shi’ite extremists took hold.

But many Iraqis as well as U.S. officials and private security analysts are uncertain whether the current lull signals a long-term trend or is simply a breathing spell like so many others before.

U.S. commanders also warn the relative peace is fragile because no lasting political agreements have been reached among the Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

Talks on returning Sunnis to the government broke down last week, and tensions among rival Shi’ite parties remain high despite a May 11 truce that ended weeks of bloody fighting in Baghdad’s Sadr City district.

Iraqis have experienced lulls in the past - notably after the January 2005 elections - only to see violence flare again.

“The security situation is much better than in the past three or four months, and I am making more money now,” said Falih Radhi, who runs a food store in eastern Baghdad. “Despite this, I have a feeling that this positive situation won’t last long and that violence may come back again.”

Nevertheless, the figures for May are encouraging, especially coming as the U.S. continues withdrawing the nearly 30,000 reinforcements that President Bush sent to Iraq early last year to curb the wave of Shi’ite-Sunni slaughter.

All five of the “surge brigades” rushed to Iraq last year will be gone by July, lowering the troop strength to about 140,000, U.S. officials say. There are currently about 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

At least 21 U.S. soldiers were killed in May - four in non-hostile incidents. That’s one more than the lowest monthly figure of the war set in February 2004.

Meanwhile, Iraqi deaths were down, too, despite a suicide bombing yesterday at a police checkpoint in the town of Heet about 85 miles west of Baghdad that killed at least 10 people.

At least 532 Iraqi civilians and security troopers were killed in May, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press from Iraqi police and military reports. That’s down sharply from April’s figure of 1,080 and the lowest monthly total this year, according to the AP count.

At the same time, Iraqi forces have taken the lead in offensives against the Sunni extremist al Qaeda in Iraq in the northern city of Mosul and against Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad and Basra in the south.

U.S. and coalition forces assumed a support role in the three offensives, enabling them to avoid higher casualties which would have been expected had they been doing all the fighting.

With the trends looking positive, the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said in Washington last week that he is likely to recommend further troop cuts in Iraq but won’t promise more details until fall - as the U.S. presidential election campaign is approaching its climax.

The reason for caution is that many of the issues that contributed to the Iraq conflict remain unresolved - notably how the various ethnic and religious groups will share power.

Moreover, armed groups - including al Qaeda - have been bloodied but not crushed.

About half the U.S. deaths in May occurred in Sunni areas, showing that Sunni insurgents remain active, even though thousands of Sunnis have agreed to work with the Shi’ite-dominated government.

Top leaders of Shi’ite militant groups that fought the Americans and Iraqis for weeks in Sadr City have escaped, the U.S. military says, presumably to regroup and fight again.

That possibility is greatest within the major Shi’ite community, where anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is competing for power against parties that have worked with the United States while maintaining ties to Iran.

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