A senior U.S. military officer says the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq is down since last week's election, and he believes the Iraqi people have reached what he calls the "saturation point" of their willingness to tolerate such attacks. Lieutenant General James Conway, the chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a year-end news conference at the Pentagon, where officials continued to hint at a slight reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq next March, but declined to confirm that will happen.
U.S. officials have long spoken about a potential "tipping point" or "saturation point," at which the majority of Iraqis would want the insurgency to stop and the new government to have a chance to take control of the country. General Conway says that appears to be happening now. "That saturation point that we thought would come with the Iraqi people, we think is starting to take place. And I think it was tied to the vote, in some regards," he said.
The general says the numbers of insurgent attacks, and Iraqi and coalition casualties, are down since last week's election, and he attributes that in part to a desire by many Iraqis for an end to the violence. "Compare what's happening right now on the ground to, let's say, during the referendum period. It's interesting, just about all the indicators are down. And that's of course, a very positive development," he said.
Some news reports have indicated that the reduction in violence is the result of a secret agreement. But General Conway said he has seen no official report of any negotiations between the coalition and the insurgents. And he says during the two years he commanded U.S. marines in Iraq, ending earlier this year, preliminary attempts to establish such contacts were not successful.
"Those people, from time to time, do attempt to reach out. Even when I was there, they wanted to sometimes come together with us. We would say to them, 'Show us that you have a say-so over these people who are carrying weapons and then we will take it from there.' They were never really able to do that. So I have my own skepticism, I guess, about the accuracy of some of those reports," he said.
But at the same news conference, chief Pentagon Spokesman Lawrence DiRita said while the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, it is interested in establishing contact with Iraqi insurgents and their supporters who are willing to lay down their arms and join the political process.
"The issue is, how do we manage groups that want to reach out to either the Iraqi government or the coalition and say, 'Jeez, we're ready to re-think this.' It's something that happens at various levels and it's done with full consultation or full understanding, generally speaking, with the Iraqi government. What we're trying to do is pull off the fence-sitters, the ones who say, 'OK, I get it, enough is enough. I'm not with them any more.' And that's an important objective, military and political objective, of what's going on in Iraq right now," he said.
Mr. DiRita and General Conway declined to directly answer questions about reports of an impending announcement of a slight U.S. troop reduction in Iraq next March. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also dodged the issue during a flight to Baghdad earlier Thursday, saying there is no final decision to announce.
But General Conway said the Pentagon has promised orders by the end of the year to two units that are waiting to hear about possible deployments. News reports indicate, and officials have not denied, that two brigades totalling seven thousand troops might not be sent to Iraq as scheduled in March, to replace units scheduled to leave. That would reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq below this year's baseline figure of 138,000.