US starts Iraq troop pull-out

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CAUTIOUSLY at first, the "surge" of 30,000 United States' soldiers sent by President George Bush to stem the country's tide of sectarian violence, is coming to an end this week.

The US military confirmed yesterday that the roughly 3,000 soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, will not be replaced when they leave the ethnically and religiously mixed province of Diyala, north of Baghdad. The bulk of the brigade will be back at Fort Hood, Texas, by Christmas and some have left already, officials said.

Between January and July, the force is to shrink from 19 brigades to 15. The number of US troops probably will go from 167,000 now to 140,000-145,000 by July, six months before President Bush leaves office.

As the US troop reductions proceed, it should become clear whether the so-called "surge" strategy that increased the American troop presence in and around Baghdad resulted in any durable gains against sectarianism. Critics note that the divided government in Baghdad has made few, if any, strides toward political reconciliation that the Americans have said is crucial to stabilising the country.

Iraq's capital is by no means yet safe. But the trend toward better security is indisputable.

The traumatised residents of this city are experiencing their first sense of normality after years of bombings, kidnappings and slaughter.

Iraqi officials speak optimistically about reopening streets and lifting the night-time curfew to encourage public confidence. "The sound of an explosion has become a rare, extraordinary thing. Before it was normal," said Mohammed Mghamish, a 41-year-old father of six in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. "I am not worried like before."

"Things are getting better, but for women the situation is the same," said Hiba Hussein, 30, a Sunni woman lawyer in northern Baghdad. "I was forced to wear a headscarf because of the Islamic attitudes on the street. Women have lost their freedom."

All that typifies the emerging picture in Iraq - a country that is less violent than a year ago, but still very far from the democratic ideal the US once sought.

Then, bands of Shiite and Sunni gunmen roamed the streets, seizing people at illegal checkpoints and dumping bodies by the dozen. Hundreds of thousands fled what amounted to ethnic cleansing.

The reasons for the drop in violence are not clear. US commanders cite the surge, but also a change in tactics, moving more troops into neighbourhoods to keep extremists from returning.

"The surge gave us combat fire to touch the enemy," said Major-General Rick Lynch, commander in southern Baghdad. "We've denied the enemy those sanctuaries, and we couldn't have done that without the surge."

But the surge's success was also due to a revolt against al-Qaeda by some Sunni Arabs - first in Anbar province and later in Baghdad. Fearing al-Qaeda's brutal tactics, many fighters from rival insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq began co-operating with US forces to drive the extremists from their neighbourhoods and villages.

Sunnis in one Baghdad neighbourhood yesterday led US and Iraqi troops to uncover eight car bombs and a ton of explosives, officials said.

US commanders were quick to exploit the changes, organising about 70,000 Sunni fighters into neighbourhood watch groups and then working to integrate them into government forces.

"Now the [ex-insurgents] are providing the security," said Amir Mohammed, 47, a Sunni merchant in western Baghdad. "Shops are open until late at night. The living standard of the people in the area is lifted."

Yet the Shiite-led government has been reluctant to bring its former enemies into the police and army, fearing Sunnis could turn against it once US forces have gone. Suspicion between Sunnis and Shiites runs deep - and could take years, if ever, to end.

The commander of US forces in Baghdad, Major-General Joseph Fil said: "Most significantly, the Iraqi people have just decided they've had it up to here with violence."

TOLL EASING

LAST December, 2,172 Iraqi civilians died violently, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press news agency - most in Baghdad.

But after a spike in June, violence in Baghdad began to ebb. In August, civilian deaths nationwide stood at 1,791, falling to 878 in September and 750 in October.

As of Sunday, 189 civilians had died violently so far in November.

US military deaths also are on the decline, though 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for the US military overall. After early spikes, deaths have fallen from 101 in June to 65 in September and 39 in October. Up to Monday, at least 16 US service members had died this month.