In July, the U.S. combat death toll in Iraq reached its lowest point since the war started, and, for the first time, was lower than the U.S. military death toll in Afghanistan. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

According to the Pentagon, five U.S. troops were killed in combat in Iraq last month. A year ago, there were 66 American combat deaths.

Officials say the reduction in casualties reflects the improved security situation in the country, and the greater combat role being taken by Iraqi forces. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell calls it "stunning," but says casualty numbers are not the only measure for success or failure in Iraq.

"As heartening as that is, it is not the metric by which we measure success, but it is certainly an encouraging sign," he said.

The caution demonstrated by Morrell and other officials is based in part on the uneven pattern in U.S. casualty figures for Iraq in recent months. After three months in the middle of last year with more than 100 U.S. casualties, the numbers began to fall, reaching 23 in January. But U.S. casualties spiked several times after that, including an increase in June.

Still, the overall trend of the past 14 months has been downward, along with the number of insurgent attacks. U.S. officials are careful to say the security gains in Iraq are 'not irreversible,' but President Bush said Thursday they have a "degree of durability."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that could lead to further U.S. troop withdrawals. "The situation has improved dramatically. And I, personally, believe that there is a real possibility of some additional drawdowns as we look forward," he said.

Gates says he is awaiting recommendations from top military commanders in Iraq and at the Pentagon, which are expected by early September.

He says those recommendations about Iraq will also affect the U.S. ability to send more troops to Afghanistan, where violence has been rising, and 16 U.S. troops were killed in combat last month. That number is higher than the Iraq combat death toll for the first time since the Iraq war began five years ago.