Officials in Iraq say 19 U.S. service members died in Iraq in the month of May, the lowest monthly casualty toll since the start of the war five years ago. Additional casualties already confirmed this month, bring the total number of U.S. military personnel deaths in Iraq to more than 4,080. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports from the northern city of Irbil that the military says security progress in the country has been significant, but cautions it is reversible.
The Multi-National Forces in Iraq say that of the 19 dead in May, 14 were killed in action, one died in the U.S. from wounds sustained in battle in Iraq, and four died in non-combat-related incidents.
A spokesman for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq, U.S. Navy Lieutenant David Russell, says there have been major security improvements in Iraq.
"There has been significant but uneven security progress in Iraq," Russell said. "The levels of violence and deaths have been reduced substantially. Al-Qaida in Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows over the past months. But they still have the capability to deliver significant events against innocent Iraqi people."
It is not just the U.S. military that is seeing a decline in violence.
Several days ago, the military said one week in late May saw the lowest level of security incidents in Iraq in more than four years. And Iraqi authorities say violent deaths of Iraqi civilians and security forces also declined sharply in May, to about 550 people. Comparatively, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in violent incidents the previous month.
In part, the military attributes the reduction in violence to both the increased number of troops in the country, as well as a focus on counter-insurgency tactics. Still, the military warns that the progress can still be undermined.
"The progress made is fragile and reversible," Russell said. "A number of factors have contributed to the progress, including an increased number of Iraqi forces and Coalition forces, and employment of Iraqi forces and Coalition forces in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations across the country."
A Multi-National Forces commander has said the number of Iraqi Army soldiers increased by 52,000 since last June, and Iraqi Special Forces have increased by 1,400 members.
But Lieutenant Russell says it is not just military action that is leading to improved security in Iraq. He says civilians are playing a major role in bringing stability to their neighborhoods.
"There has also developed an attitudinal shift among certain elements in the Iraqi population, rejecting the al-Qaida in Iraq's indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology," Russell said. "These awakenings have prompted tens-of-thousands of Iraqis, some former insurgents, to contribute to local security as so-called Sons of Iraq."
The Sons of Iraq, formerly known as Concerned Local Citizens, are primarily made up of Sunni civilians, who patrol the cities and provide information about insurgent activities and weapons caches to Iraqi and coalition forces.