U.S. Defense Department officials say American and Iraqi forces are making progress toward bringing security to Baghdad. But, the comments came amid surging sectarian violence and the day after statistics from the U.S. military command in Baghdad indicated a sharp increase in attacks on civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent months.
Speaking from a military base in central Baghdad Friday, U.S. Army Colonel Michael Beech gave an upbeat assessment of progress in his area, the Rashid neighborhood, home to about 1.8 million Iraqis. He is particularly pleased with progress in one area called Dura.
"I walk the streets of Dura every day," he said. "And what I see is every day there are additional shops open that weren't there before. I see the Dura market has increased traffic and people in the Dura market shopping every day. The feedback that I get from people on the streets is absolutely very promising."
The colonel attributes the improvements in the Dura neighborhood to several weeks of joint operations with Iraqi forces as part of Operation Forward Together, which was ordered by Iraq's new prime minister in response to the surging violence in Baghdad.
Colonel Beech says in his part of the city, his forces have cleared insurgents and criminals out of an area of nearly four thousand homes, and are expanding that perimeter every day. But he says the real test of Operation Forward Together will come in the longer term.
"The clearance part of the operation isn't the most important. The most important is holding onto it and protecting the population. The national police forces and the Iraqi police are critical to this. This is a collaborative effort between U.S. forces and national police, and what we have to get is the support of the Iraqi people to trust their security forces," he added.
The colonel says he is encouraged that the people of the neighborhood seem to have growing confidence in the Iraqi police, but he acknowledges that infiltration of the police by insurgent groups is still a problem.
The colonel's largely positive report from the Rashid neighborhood comes as violence continues in other parts of the city, and elsewhere in the country.
Iraq's Health Ministry reports that an average of 110 Iraqis died in attacks every day in July. At the same time, the number of U.S. deaths in Iraq was down slightly in July to 38, although the number of wounded was up.
On Thursday, The New York Times quoted statistics provided by the U.S. military as saying there were more roadside bombs planted in Iraq in July than in any month since the conflict started, a total of more than 2,600. Such bombs have proved to be the insurgents' deadliest weapon in recent years.
But according to the military statistics for July, about one third of the IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, were found before they exploded. The Times says of the more than 1,600 bombs that exploded in Iraq in July, 20 percent were directed at Iraqi forces and 10 percent at unprotected Iraqi civilians, both double the rate of a year ago. The rest were directed at coalition troops.
"IEDs continue to be a problem," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "But what we are finding is that we are becoming much more effective in countering IEDs either through intelligence, tips, protection measures."
And Whitman says he does not see the bomb statistics as indicating any broad underlying strength in the insurgency.
"It doesn't take a lot of people that are committed to killing themselves for a cause, or putting themselves at risk, or having complete disregard for other innocent life to cause significant damage to other people, soft targets, that type of thing," he added.
The increase in bombing attempts and deaths among Iraqis, alongside positive local reports from officers like Colonel Beech, present a mixed picture of the situation in Iraq. U.S. officials often point out that most of the violence is limited to just four of Iraq's provinces. But military and foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says the big picture in Iraq is not good.
"It's very hard to argue it's going well," he explained. "There's a chance that it will collapse in complete disaster at this point. And so, I think until we see Iraq at least stabilize a little bit and stanch the hemorrhaging it's going to be hard to talk about this as a period of great progress."
The commander who spoke Friday, Colonel Beech, says that in the long term he is optimistic, as long as the Iraqi police perform well and the people's confidence in their ability grows.