Violence in Iraq drops dramatically

Iraq. Click map to view.

Ten months after the announcement of the new counterterrorism strategy in Iraq — often misleadingly referred to as “The Surge” — and four months after the last combat brigade was positioned and major operations against al Qaeda and the Shia extremist groups began in mid-June, the US military can point to real results in the security field. Violence has dropped in Iraq, and dropped significantly.

The Washington Post laid out the evidence of the drop in violence in Iraq. Iraqi deaths are plummeting. US combat deaths — which can be a poor indicator of success or failure — are at a near all-time low. Al Qaeda’s declared Ramadan campaign did not materialize. “The evidence of a drop in violence in Iraq is becoming hard to dispute,” The Washington Post reported.

In September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 percent from August and 77 percent from September 2006, according to the Web site The Iraqi Health Ministry and the Associated Press reported similar results. U.S. soldiers killed in action numbered 43 — down 43 percent from August and 64 percent from May, which had the highest monthly figure so far this year. The American combat death total was the lowest since July 2006 and was one of the five lowest monthly counts since the insurgency in Iraq took off in April 2004.

During the first 12 days of October the death rates of Iraqis and Americans fell still further. So far during the Muslim month of Ramadan, which began Sept. 13 and ends this weekend, 36 U.S. soldiers have been reported as killed in hostile actions. That is remarkable given that the surge has deployed more American troops in more dangerous places and that in the past al-Qaeda has staged major offensives during Ramadan. Last year, at least 97 American troops died in combat during Ramadan. Al-Qaeda tried to step up attacks this year, U.S. commanders say — so far, with stunningly little success.

General Petraeus’ change in strategy pushed US forces from the large, secure bases into combat outposts, forward operating bases, battle positions, and patrol bases in the urban, suburban, and rural areas of Iraq. The change has yielded real results. Coupled with a planned, concerted offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia extremists groups’ safe havens and with a renewed engagement in reconstruction efforts, the new strategy allowed Sunni and Shia tribes to step up and provide security. The new strategy also enabled Sunni insurgent groups unhappy with al Qaeda’s attempts to dominate the insurgency to turn on the terror group and join the reconciliation process at the local level.

With the onset of “The Surge,” Sunni and Shia groups began forming local and provincial Awakening councils modeled after the successful Anbar Awakening Council that succesfully drove al Qaeda into the shadows in Anbar province. Many groups received assistance from members of the Anbar Awakening, a grouping of Sunni tribes and insurgent groups such as the 1920s Revolution Brigade and the Mujahideen Army. These tribes and insurgent groups are organized across provincial boundaries. With Anbar as a model, Awakening councils formed in Diyala, Salahadin, Babil, Ninewa, Wasit, and Baghdad provinces.

Due to the success of the Awakening movements, local security groups are springing up in places like Taji, Mussayib, Haswa, Arab Jabour, Salman Pak, Abu Ghraib, Tarmiyah, Tuz, Yusifiyah, Miqdadiyah, Mada’in, and a host of other towns and cities. In some cases, the provincial Awakening councils assisted in the setup of the local groups, which later became integrated into the movements.

Called Concerned Citizens, Iraqi Police Volunteers, Guardians, Patriots, auxiliary police, and a host of other names, these local security groups have succeeded in quelling the insurgency in many areas. In the Al Haswa region, the Iraqi Police Volunteers have largely driven the insurgency underground; there are 11,000 volunteers operating in this region alone. In the Arab Jabour region, the local Concerned Citizens have taken over security in pockets and the attacks have plummeted. This pattern is being repeated across Iraq.

The spread of the auxiliary police has acted as a force multiplier for Multinational Forces Iraq. With security being established locally, US forces can continue to press the attack against al Qaeda safe havens in Iraq in places like the Hamrin mountains, eastern Diyala province in the Miqdadiyah and Balad Ruz regions, pockets in Salahadin province, and further north in rural areas of Ninewa province.

Because of this, al Qaeda’s declared Ramadan offensive was largely a failure. Al Qaeda’s predicament in Iraq was compounded this past month when insurgent groups began to issue harsh statements against the terror group. The 1920s Revolution Brigades accused al Qaeda of numerous crimes, including attacking “Ameriyyat [al-Fallujah] with a car bomb packed with chlorine gas canisters, and they even laid siege to the area to prevent food and fuel from getting to people. Finally, they killed several men at the local market and smashed their heads against boxes of food.”

Asaeb al Iraq al Jihadiya (aka the Iraqi Jihad Union) up until a few months ago had conducted several operations in conjunction with al Qaeda. But now Asaeb al Iraq al Jihadiya is accusing the terror group and puppet political government, the Islamic State of Iraq, of murdering and desecrating the bodies of its members in Diyala province. “To make things worse, they dug up their bodies from the graves, further mutilated them, beheaded them, and showed them off from their vehicles while driving through the towns. [The ISI] even killed our men’s wives and children.”

Two new insurgent councils were formed. Wanted Baathist Izzat Ibrahim al Douri formed the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, a grouping of largely unknown and defunct Sunni insurgent groups. Days after that formation, elements of the Islamic Army of Iraq, the Mujahideen Army, Ansar al Sunna, the Fatiheen Army, the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (JAMI) and the Islamic Movement of Hamas-Iraq formed a political council. Both groups issued demands that are unlikely to be met by the Iraqi government or the US, but both signaled a willingness to negotiate. And both groups ignored al Qaeda in Iraq. The formation of these councils is a direct affront to al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq.

The push against al Qaeda has been matched equally with a push against the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups — known as the Special Groups — and the “rogue” Mahdi Army. US forces killed and captured numerous Special Groups operatives and six members of Iran’s Qods Force, Iran’s foreign wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Qods Force set up the Ramazan Corps and three subcommands to operate within Iraq; the US captured the commander of the Zafr command.

The Coalition attacks against the Special Groups have given the Shia community the space to turn away from Shia extremists such as the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al Sadr’s criminal gang. The New York Times reported that “relations have soured” between the Mahdi Army and Shia civilians in Baghdad. Sadr’s Mahdi Army has been implicated in a host of criminal activity, including the murder of civilians, ethnic cleansing, theft, and other crimes. Sadr overreached when it attacked government troops during a religious festival in Najaf; over 60 were killed and the festival as canceled. Shia tribal movements hostile to the Mahdi Army and Iran are now springing up in places like Mussayib and Wasit province.

As The Washington Post noted in its report on the reduction of violence, the war in Iraq is by no means over. Al Qaeda in Iraq still has a presence in the country, and it is still organized in some areas. Iran is still investing significant resources to destabilize Iraq. The political situation in Baghdad is still fluid, as is the security situation. The central government remains weak.

The most significant challenge for the Iraqi government remains reconciliation with insurgent groups, both Sunni and Shia, and the integration of the auxiliary police movements into legitimate security forces, be it the Army, National Police, provincial police, or local police. In September The Washington Post claimed “the Iraqi government, at the urging of U.S. authorities   ordered Iraqi army and police units to integrate the volunteers into their operations,” The Long War Journal has learned that this statement is inaccurate. In an inquiry to Multinational Division Central, Brigadier General Jim Huggins, the Deputy Commander, provided clarification.

There was a memo sent out from the Prime Minister’s office on Sept. 3, 2007 regarding the Iraqi Security Forces and concerned citizens. From the Prime Minister’s memo: “Direct the Commanders, Unit Officers and Military Units to deal with those contracted groups who are working as security guards with the MNF-I. These units will be under the command of the Iraqi Military Units.”

So, using the term “integrate” may be appropriate, but it might also lead someone to the conclusion that the concerned citizens are being brought into the legitimate security forces of Iraq. It is not there yet but nonetheless, positive progress. Iraqi commanders and officials are in open coordination and dialog with these groups.

US commanders have repeatedly said there is a short shelf life on the amount of time the local security forces will operate without recognition and support from the central government. The dramatic development of local security forces, along with the change in US strategy and the deployment of additional forces are directly responsible for decreasing the violence in Iraq. The Iraqi government must make the next move and recognize these auxiliary police units, which are in already working hand in hand with US and Iraqi forces.

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Macs says:

    Thank God for this great news. You might never know this information were it not for the military blogs like this one and Pat

  • Knighthawk says:

    What an outstanding and information packed recap of where things are today! Bravo!
    Thanks Bill.
    Snooper I don’t know but they always seem to find a way. I will say though even the AP ran a headline today: “Iraq sees Dramatically Low Death Toll”, while they have been getting better at reporting some of the progress they rarely lead with good news in the headlines.

  • Iraq death tolls dropping significantly

    But meanwhile, some seemingly important facts about the main subject of discussion last month — whether there has been a decrease in violence in Iraq — have gotten relatively little attention.

  • Fight4TheRight says:

    I understand you being leary. I have thought recently, that the Iraqi Government would be well-servec if they reached out to all of the Awakening Councils that are currently up and running and the many more that are sure to spring up in the months ahead. Why not refigure the Iraqi Parliament a bit just to add a member from each of these Awakening movements? This, in my mind, would bring some representation and at the same time, try to unite those separate movements.
    And Snooper, you asked how the surrenderists will spin this? Well, I just noticed the previews for tonight’s version of “60 Minutes” and they of course will spend a good portion of time villifying Blackwater and the recent incident. It never ends. The U.S. forces in Iraq could kill 3,000 al Qaeda next week, capture every one of their leaders and the MSM would bury it on page 22 but have a lead story from a terrorist who has a made up story of torture.
    Someday, real soon, the MSM will get theirs.

  • Right Voices says:

    General David Petraeus Was Right

    Better Numbers, Violence in Iraq drops dramatically, and MORE GOOD NEWS… Casualties Continue to Drop in Iraq!
    NEWS COVERAGE and debate about Iraq during the past couple of weeks have centered on the alleged abuses of private security firms like …

  • AQI Losses says:

    Great news Bill!
    And the good news keeps on coming.
    13 AQI leaders taken off the streets in Arab Jabour.
    Plus, two other leaders and a close associate near Taji.

  • AQI Losses says:

    Also, it looks like Northwestern Baghdad has turned the corner.
    How is Eastern Anbar coming along, especially around Karmah?

  • alanreasin says:

    It appears that the Iraqi government has the same problem coming to grips with the necessity of recognizing the security volunteers just as our government does with border security and the volunteer Minutemen; a modern version of the Coast Guard’s WWII volunteer Coastal Watch but without the US government’s sanction. I realize that Iraqi is involved in a conflict with violence somewhat similar to a civil war, but Americans seem to forget that many of the unresolved problems causing criticism to be leveled at the Iraq government also elude our own government.

  • Neo says:

    The main point is that casualties of both US troops and Iraqi civilians are dropping to a new baseline. This reflects a new situation on the ground and is not some sort of gimmick. We will see over the next few months where that new baseline will settle. Historically, it has been difficult keeping US casualties below around 50 in Iraq. That would include about half combat casualties, the other half from accidents or disease. I wouldn’t count on things settling at a lower level with so many troops in the field.
    It will be interesting to see just how far civilian casualties will fall as the security situation stabilizes. Al Qaeda will still throw in a sizeable mass casualty bombing in every once in a while to get a reaction from the western press. It is obvious that these mass casualty bombings are now media events rather than sustained attempts to wipe out minority groups.
    The thing I find most remarkable about this is that many of the largest security gains have been happening in tough mixed Sunni – Shiite areas. Of course these areas have been prioritized but I thought efforts to stabalize these areas would move a lot slower. This tells me that the animosity between Sunnis and Shiites may not be quite as deep as many feared. Much of the current sectarian conflict in Iraq has been manufactured by extremist political factions and outside backers. Both sides fear each others extremists but there is a question of how deep the hatred is at street level once the various militias and armed groups are taken out of the picture.

  • Gringo says:

    @ Solo
    I don’t think the animosity between Shiite and Sunni is as pronounced as what’s been reported on the MSM.
    After all, they have been living in the same area for over 1000 years. Sunnis and Shiites intermarry. Before 2003, Baghdad had many “mixed” neighborhoods.

  • Neo says:

    I wish to clarify something so I don’t give the wrong impression. I do not by any means discount the current animosity between Shiites and Sunnis and how that fuels part of the current conflict. It should be point out however, that both extremists and outside players have spent a great deal of effort creating the current atmosphere of fear and animosity. I do acknowledge conditions were ripe to take advantage of Shiite – Sunni animosity and turn it into open warfare. It is an open question though, as to what depth this animosity is felt within the Iraqi community. There are quite a few signs that many Iraqis think the current sectarian animosity within Iraq is contrived to some degree.
    Some political observers would have you believe that Shiite – Sunni animosity is so dominant that they are an irresistible social driving force within Iraq that any attempt at reconciliation impossible. Such a belief seems to take extremist Al Qaeda and Hezbollah views as De facto positions held within the Iraqi community. I might also point out that this view of things serves the political contention that reconciliation within Iraq is impossible and our current efforts at remedying the situation are misguided and futile. Failing to acknowledge good news such as contained in these reports is every bit as much of a weakness as failing to acknowledge problems. Suffice to say, the situation in Iraq is stubborn and complex enough to support all sorts of views on any likelihood of success. Of course I’m assuming there’s still room somewhere for honest debate on the subject.

  • Winger says:

    I remember a story early on in the war about insurgent groups southwest of Bagdad. They came to the Sunni farmer and told him he needed to get rid of the Shiites he had working for him or they would return and take care of it themselves. He stated that they were good workers and good people and he did not want to get rid of them but was forced to do so by the insurgent groups who wanted no Shiites in that area. That lends credence to the idea that the general population does not harbor deep seated hatred but that the guys with guns that control the area do. Perhaps many of those gun toters are having to keep their heads low at this point if they are not dead already.
    The next generation of leaders in the area will show us the true nature of the Shia/Sunni divide. Hopefully, changing political climate and coalition military success will have some favorable impact on their decision making process. We need to keep the hammer on these guys.

  • Turner Bond says:

    When President Bush first spoke about Iraq he was way ahead of the press as he spoke of the Sunni, Kurds and Shia. Eventually, the press caught up and used these words as well, but in the beginning it seemed almost as though they overplayed the differences. In truth, however, their is a historical divide that will be tough to overcome in times when these groups are tempted to start nursing old wounds.
    There were whole nieghborhoods of Shia run out during the Iran/Iraq war. People with Persian or Iranian heritage going back two generations were sometimes suspect. Whole blocks were cleared out in a few weeks. Some left overnight. Some successful business people lost there fortunes. This was more pronounced in Baghdad than elsewhere. Saddam wrote letters of dispensation to keep in the file of some of those in the Presidential circles, but it was tense for them.
    Sunni and Shia have done better together in Iraq than some other places, but the history before now was not always smooth. When Iraq was a British protectorate the British found their dealings with the Shia to be confusing and frustrating, so they came to rely on the Sunni to rule over the Shia and manage the country. This is probably exactly what they didn’t want to do at first since the Ottomans did it before them. Needless to say this history of the Sunni as overlord leaves a certain distrust that will be hard to overlook without a strong injection of hope and the spiritual gift of forgiveness.

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