BAGHDAD — July is on track to be the least deadly month for American troops and one of the quietest for Iraqis since the war started, a decline in violence that has led the U.S. to consider stepping up its withdrawal plans just a month after pulling its combat forces back from Baghdad and other cities.
The optimism was tempered by two bombings that killed 12 civilians to the north and west of Baghdad on Thursday. While such attacks have become a daily fact of life for Iraqis, overall violence levels remain low.
At least 274 Iraqis have been killed in attacks so far in July, according to an Associated Press count. Only two months – both this year – have seen fewer Iraqis killed since the AP began tracking war-related fatalities in May 2005. There were 242 deaths in January and 225 deaths in May.
Only seven U.S. troop deaths have been recorded this month, the lowest monthly total since the war started in March 2003, according to an AP tally. In all, at least 4,329 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war.
By contrast, July was the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in the eight-year Afghan war, with at least 41 dead.
The encouraging numbers from Iraq came a month after the Americans turned over responsibility for protecting cities to government forces and withdrew to bases outside urban areas.
A spike in bombings and other attacks that killed about 300 people in the 10 days leading up to the June 30 city withdrawal deadline sparked concern that the move would jeopardize security gains. But that level of violence did not continue into July.
Jim Dobbins, director of national security research at RAND Corp., said the relatively smooth transition was one reason for Wednesday's remarks by Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the U.S. may speed up its withdrawal plans if the trend toward reduced violence continues.
"I think the fact that they were able to (take over the cities) so relatively successfully and the fact that they've continued to try to expand their own autonomy and limit the U.S. role, particularly the visible U.S. role, was a factor," he said. "It demonstrates a sense of self-confidence that the U.S. wants to encourage."
A U.S. Army adviser to the Iraqi military command in Baghdad, Col. Timothy R. Reese, argued in an internal memo that the U.S. should "declare victory and go home" next year, 16 months ahead of schedule.
Reese wrote that the years-long American effort to train, equip and advise Iraqi security forces has reached a point of rapidly diminishing returns, and that Iraqi forces already are good enough to defend the government against the weakened terrorist and insurgent forces that remain.
He concluded that Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces are capable of defending their country despite corruption, poor management and the inability to resist political pressure.
"The massive partnering efforts of U.S. combat forces with ISF (Iraqi security forces) isn't yielding benefits commensurate with the effort and is now generating its own opposition," Reese wrote in a memo early this month to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.
Reese argued for ending the U.S. military mission in Iraq in August 2010. That is the date when President Barack Obama has said all combat troops will have withdrawn. A residual force of 35,000 to 50,000 troops will remain to continue training and advising the Iraqi security forces until a final pullout by December 2011.
On Wednesday, Gates said after visiting Iraq that conditions have improved so much that it might be possible to accelerate slightly the withdrawal of combat forces this fall. But he did not address the separate question of whether to shrink or eliminate the post-August 2010 residual force.
The rationale for leaving a fairly large residual force beyond August 2010 rests on an expectation that the Iraqi government will require continued American military assistance even after the combat mission ends.
U.S. commanders say security gains are fragile and reversible, and the Iraqi government needs years of assistance in developing a force capable of defending against external threats.
The Iraqi government says it wants the U.S. troops to leave as fast as possible but that its troops need more weapons and equipment.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Americans would leave behind a "significant amount of equipment and arms" and the government would buy more "either from the U.S. or from any other source we choose."
Violence has fluctuated throughout this year, but overall levels remain low compared with previous years when sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Shiites pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
More than 111,000 Iraqis have died in violence since the U.S.-led invasion, according to figures compiled by the AP. The number is a minimum count because of thousands who are still missing and civilians who were buried in the chaos of war without official records.
An average of at least nine Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence each day this year compared with an average of 50 Iraqi deaths per day in 2007 at the height of the conflict.
"Every month that goes by with a substantially diminished level of violence creates the presumption that the Iraqi government is stable and this is not going to fly apart," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which follows security and defense issues.
But obstacles remain, including the possibility that violence will re-emerge over the refusal of the Shiite-led government to satisfy demands of the minority Sunnis as well as Kurdish-Arab tensions in the north.
U.S. commanders have also warned attacks could escalate ahead of national elections next year. The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for most combat forces – or more than 100,000 troops – to remain in the country until after the Jan. 16 vote.
In the latest examples of the dangers still faced by Iraqi civilians, a bombing in the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killed at least seven people, while a suicide truck bomber targeting a police station killed five other people west of the capital, according to police.
The Iraqi government, meanwhile, said seven people were killed when it seized control of a camp housing an Iranian opposition group north of Baghdad on Tuesday – its first confirmation of casualties in the bold raid that defied U.S. calls to avoid force. The People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran raised its toll to 12 people killed.
About 3,500 ex-Iranian fighters and relatives live in the camp, first set up in 1986 when they helped Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran war. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, American troops disarmed the fighters and confined them to the camp, but the Iraqis assumed responsibility for them under this year's security agreement.
Associated Press Writers Robert Burns in Washington, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.