TWO years after the huge statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in the centre of Baghdad, the tide could finally be turning against the country’s insurgents.
Although the euphoria that accompanied the demolition of the statue has long since evaporated, some observers are beginning to wonder whether the insurgency in Iraq is at last running out of steam.
The US military has experienced its least deadly month for more than a year. Operations along with the newly formed Iraqi police have snared a number of leading terrorists with links to al-Qaeda and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The casualty data for March shows that 39 American and coalition troops were killed during the month - the lowest toll since February 2004.
US deaths have now dropped for three months in a row, from 106 in January to 56 in February and 35 in March. Attacks on US troops are also down from over 100 before the January 30 election to around 60 today. Among the March figures were one British death and three from other coalition countries.
Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita says: "The intelligence is getting better. We have apprehended or killed an enormous number of insurgents, so we may well be seeing people who are less skilled at what they’re doing. Their ability to anticipate and target is becoming cruder because the coalition’s intelligence is getting better."
But there is much to be cautious about. CNN, which publishes detailed analyses of casualties in Iraq on its website, including the identities of all those killed, says: "The fatality trend line is at 8.3 this week - the lowest level for a year. However, both fatalities and the number of wounded, while reaching low levels, have increased in each of the past three weeks. The recent increases may be indications of the start of a new second anniversary insurgency."
Grim confirmation that the insurgency can still inflict lethal blows came with the deaths of four more US soldiers in separate incidents at the end of last week. Yet the downward trend in attacks since the January 30 elections may be a sign that the tide has turned.
The Pentagon’s view is that the insurgency is losing momentum in the wake of Iraq’s experiment with democracy. It also believes that US counter-insurgency operations are having an effect, with US commanders reporting that troops are finding more bombs before they go off and that the bombs are less sophisticated.
Last week, Iraq’s interim interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, claimed that the progress was due to the growing number of Iraqi security forces, and that not only were the attacks decreasing but also claiming fewer victims. He said it was easier for them to gather intelligence on insurgents than it was for US troops.
American defence officials now put the number of trained Iraqi security forces at 142,472. The total includes only those who have both the training and equipment to fight. These forces consist of 81,889 trained and equipped police, highway patrol and other forces in the Ministry of Interior Forces, and 60,583 troops in the Ministry of Defence Forces.
The suicide bombing of army barracks, police stations and recruiting queues resulting in many deaths is the biggest obstacle to building up local forces.
Yesterday a car bomb exploded in Khan Bani Saad, near the city of Baqouba, killing five Iraqis, including four police officers on patrol, while gunmen killed an education official in Baghdad. But many recruits are refusing to be intimidated. Moreover, a $5bn American-financed effort has bought Iraqi units more than 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, 100,000 flak jackets, 110,000 pistols, 6,000 cars and pick-up trucks, and 230 million rounds of ammunition.
No one is certain how many insurgents there are. Including foot soldiers, safe-house operators, organisers and financiers, the number is estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000 - but there is some evidence that they are under pressure.
US officials say that since the elections Iraqis have begun providing information on suspicious activities or people, encouraged by the state-run television station that broadcasts the confessions of alleged insurgents.
Michael O’Hanlon, an expert on Iraq at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says that the current mood of optimism is damaging insurgent recruitment and has turned public opinion against the militants. "There’s more and more a sense that the insurgents are attacking Iraqis and Iraq itself," he says. If the insurgents continue to focus attacks on Iraqi officials, O’Hanlon added, the conflict "could become more of a civil war".
Militants are focusing their attacks on Iraqi government and security officials because there are more of them on the streets every day. Ali al-Faisal, a member of the Shiite clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, the largest group in the new parliament, says the change is because Iraqi police are taking the lead in fighting the insurgency.
"In the past they were targeting the American forces because they were in charge of security," he said. "After the new Iraqi army and police were established and succeeded in maintaining security and began annihilating them, the insurgents shifted their attacks."
However, the situation is not being helped by the failure of the political parties to follow the timetable designed to lead to elections at the end of the year. Deadlock prevails in the national assembly, which has now met three times without being able to agree on a president, prime minister and a speaker of the house, delaying the drawing up a new constitution.
The two groups which emerged as winners in the elections, the Kurds and the Shia, are at loggerheads in what is more than a classic power struggle. It is not just a question of dividing up the top jobs - at stake is the character of the new Iraq.
The Kurds want substantial autonomy in any new government. They also have a secular outlook. The Shia want a united Iraq run from the centre in Baghdad, in which Islamic values will be accorded high priority.
At a late stage, the main losers, the Sunnis, who boycotted the elections, have entered the fray, complicating the bargaining game. But they themselves are not united. Officials from the Shia Muslim majority say the delay is due to efforts to find a Sunni Muslim candidate for speaker who is acceptable to all parties.
Professor Juan Cole, author of a widely respected web diary on events in Iraq, says: "Two sticking points in the negotiations are the role of Islam in the new government and who gets the ministry of petroleum. The Kurds want it as a way of getting hold of the oil city of Kirkuk, which they covet. The Shiites want it because they have the huge Rumaila oil field in the south."
The deadlock is diverting the new government from restoring law and order - the top priority for most Iraqis. Iraqi health ministry figures show that record numbers of Iraqi civilians are meeting violent deaths, often as a result of violence unconnected with the insurgency, such as kidnappings, car-jackings and local vendettas.
A lot of the violence is caused by ethnic, tribal and religious rivalries that were suppressed by Saddam’s regime.
The physical reconstruction of the country remains stalled, foreign contractors are too scared to travel to work sites, and basic amenities such as electricity, water and petrol are in short supply.
These diverse trends are being closely watched inside and outside Iraq for any sign that might indicate when the US and other governments will begin to withdraw their troops - first from the cities and then from the country.
The Bush administration says that a trained Iraqi security force is the key to the US withdrawal because Iraqis would then be able to secure their own country.
Air Force Lt Gen Lance Smith, deputy commander of US Central Command, says that US forces could begin coming home in significant numbers if insurgent violence is low through the general elections scheduled for the end of this year.
But a resurgent insurgency, setbacks in the Iraqi security forces or missed deadlines by the transitional government, could delay any significant withdrawal, he adds.
O’Hanlon argues that only when the coalition governments announce a timetable for withdrawal will the insurgency really run out of steam. "Most of the growth in the insurgency has come from Sunni Arabs who were ‘fence-sitters’ in the early months after Hussein fell. They now seem motivated primarily by anger at foreign forces, which they perceive as occupiers," he says.
"The perception of coalition forces as latter-day imperialists is fundamentally unfair and wrong, but it is widespread."
COALITION BODY COUNT
Total coalition troops killed in action to March 31, 2005: US 1,529; UK 87; others 90.
Breakdown by period and country:
March 20 to April 30, 2003 (period of combat operations): US 139; UK 33; others 0; total 173.
May 1, 2003 to June 28, 2004 (sovereignty handover): US 717; UK 27; others 58; total 802.
June 29, 2004 to Jan 30, 2005 (election): US 579; UK 26; others 27; total 632.
January 31 to March 31, 2005: US 97; UK 1; others 5; total 103.
Other coalition countries - Totals: Italy 22; Ukraine 18; Poland 187; Spain 11; Bulgaria 8; Slovakia 3; Netherlands 2; Estonia 2; Thailand 2; Kazakhstan 1; Salvador 1; Latvia 1; Denmark 1; Hungary 1
Iraq: No definitive figures since the coalition forces do not conduct body counts.
Iraqbodycount.com, which collects figures on a voluntary basis, says that the death toll among Iraqis as a result of the conflict is between 17,300 and 19,679.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health has been collecting figures from hospitals since April 2004. For the six-month period from July 1, 2004 to January 1, 2005: 3,274 killed and 12,657 injured in conflict-related violence.
2,041 of these deaths were the result of military action, in which 8,542 were injured. 1,233 deaths were the result of ‘terrorist’ incidents.