BAGHDAD – The number of American troops and Iraqi civilians killed in the war fell in September to levels not seen in more than a year. The U.S. military said the lower count was at least partly a result of new strategies and 30,000 additional U.S. forces deployed this year.
Although it is difficult to draw conclusions from a single month's tally, the figures could suggest U.S.-led forces are making headway against extremist factions and disrupting their ability to strike back.
The U.S. military toll for September was 65, the lowest since July 2006, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from death announcements by the American command and Pentagon.
More dramatic, however, was the decline in Iraqi civilian, police and military deaths. The figure was 988 in September — 50 percent lower than the previous month and the lowest tally since June 2006, when 847 Iraqis died.
The Iraqi death count is considered a minimum based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported.
Nevertheless, the heartening numbers emerged just three weeks after U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus argued before a divided Congress that more time was needed for Iraq to begin seeing results from President Bush's dispatch of an additional 30,000 forces to pacify Baghdad and surrounding regions.
On Monday they issued an unusual joint statement to the Iraqi people that credited them for the decline in violence.
"We must maintain the momentum that together we have achieved. We are confident that you and your fellow citizens will continue to display determination, that Iraqi security forces will remain vigilant and that additional Iraqis will join our combined effort," they said.
Their message opened with greetings to the Iraqi people during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims focus on their spiritual lives and fast from dawn to dusk.
"Please know that we remain absolutely committed to this effort. ... Much work lies ahead of us. Despite the challenges, we can, together, achieve success," the two men wrote in the statement signed and dated by each.
Of particular note, the message referred to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by his honorific, Sayyid Muqtada. Sayyid is a title designating a religious figure as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
"We also sincerely hope that the cease-fire declared by the Sayyid Muqtada will continue to be observed and be further extended to all members of Jaysh al-Mahdi (Arabic for Mahdi Army)," Crocker and Petraeus wrote.
After a violent confrontation between the Mahdi Army and guards at a religious shrine in the holy city of Karbala in August, al-Sadr said he was standing down his fighters for six months to reorganize.
Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for Petraeus, said there was "no silver bullet or one thing" responsible for the declining death tolls. But he credited increased U.S. troop strength, saying that had allowed American forces to step up operations against al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent and militia fighters.
Anthony H. Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon and analyst with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the decline in violent deaths was a positive trend that does seem to be related to the increase in U.S. forces. But he said it was too early to know if it will last.
"We tend to focus too much on killing rather than wounded, on extreme acts of violence rather than patterns of displacement or ethnic cleansing." He said that when looking at overall stability in Iraq, killings are only one measure.
"This is, I think one of the great difficulties. It's a very complex pattern of fighting and people look for simple statistical bottom lines rather the overall pattern," he said.
"You know you've won when you've won, not when you get the first set of positive indicators," he said.
While civilian deaths were sharply lower last month, Baghdad remained the center of violence in percentage terms. For this year, 54 percent of all sectarian killings occurred in the capital and suburbs. That figure declined to just above 49 percent in September. For the year, the next two most violent regions were the provinces of Diyala and Nineveh.
The number of civilian deaths in Baghdad, 487, also far outstripped any other region in September. Next highest was Diyala province, an al-Qaida sanctuary immediately north and east of the capital, where 124 civilians were killed.
AP tallies civilian, Iraqi military and Iraqi police deaths each day as reported by police, hospital officials, morgue workers and verifiable witness accounts. The security personnel include Iraqi military, police and police recruits, and bodyguards. Insurgent deaths are not included.
In the latest U.S. deaths, the military reported that an American soldier was killed and 10 were wounded Monday in combat operations in central Baghdad. The same day, a soldier was killed and another was wounded in a non-combat accident in Qadisiyah province.
In Washington, Senator Joseph Biden issued a statement clarifying what he said were misconceptions about a nonbinding Senate resolution that passed last week under his cosponsorship.
The resolution calls on the Bush administration to encourage the Iraqi government and parliament to adhere to the country's constitution, which lays out a plan for a loose confederation of regions under a limited central government, leaving the bulk of power with the regions.
"Since then, some political leaders in Iraq have misunderstood the amendment. Instead of working to clear up any misunderstandings about the Senate amendment, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad issued a statement that dangerously mischaracterizes it," said Biden.
He said the amendment, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Sam Brownback, "does not call for the partition of Iraq. To the contrary, it calls for keeping Iraq together by bringing to life the federal system enshrined in its constitution.
"Partition, or the complete break-up of Iraq, is something wholly different than federalism. A federal Iraq is a united Iraq, but one in which power is devolved to regional governments with a limited central government responsible for protecting Iraq's borders and oil distribution.
"It leaves the door open for stronger unity if and when passions cool, as we're seeing in the Balkans. Nor does the amendment call for dividing Iraq along sectarian lines," Biden said, adding that the resolution only calls for Iraqis to implement their constitution.
The U.S. Embassy joined a broad swath of Iraqi politicians — both Shiite and Sunni — in criticizing the resolution, seen here as a recipe for splitting the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.
Biden contested the Embassy's assertion that the resolution could lead to "bloodshed and suffering" in Iraq and charged the Bush administration was "pursuing a fatally flawed policy in trying to create a strong central government in Iraq." Biden is a Democratic candidate for president; Brownback is seeking the Republican nomination.