(CNSNews.com) – A recent spate of violence in Iraq that has cost dozens of lives, including those of seven U.S. soldiers, goes against a trend of improving security that saw fewer American fatalities during March than in any previous month since hostilities began six years ago.
The senior U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday the overall violence level remains at its lowest since 2003, and expressed confidence that the end of 2011 target date for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq would be met.
Army General Ray Odierno said, however, that it may be necessary to be flexible with timetables for some interim troop movements.
A status of forces agreement that was drawn up last November and entered into force on January 1 provides for U.S. troops to redeploy out of cities and towns by the end of June. By the end of August 2010 combat operations are meant to end, and all troops are due to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
“If we believe that we’ll need troops to maintain presence [beyond June 30] in some of the cities, we’ll recommend that,” Odierno said, adding that the decision was ultimately up to the Iraqi government.
He was speaking to CNN from Iraq a day after nine people were killed in a suicide attack on U.S.-allied Sunni militiamen south of Baghdad, and two days after a suicide bomber targeting a national police building in Mosul killed five U.S. soldiers along with two Iraqi policemen.
In another attack Sunday, a U.S. soldier died of wounds sustained when an improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated in Salahaddin province.
Together with Friday’s loss of life and the April 5 death of a soldier in a mine explosion near Baghdad, Sunday’s death brings to seven the number of combat-related deaths reported so far this month. The Department of Defense has also reported two non-combat deaths.
By comparison, the whole of March saw the deaths of nine U.S. personnel in Iraq, the lowest monthly number yet recorded since March 2003. Also, the number of combat-related casualties in March – four – tied with the January 2009 figure as the lowest monthly toll since the war began, according to a Cybercast News Service database of Iraq casualties.
The nine deaths in March followed 17 in February and 16 in January, the database shows. In March 2008, 41 U.S. service members were killed, and in March 2007, 82. Last April, 53 American personnel died, and in April 2007, 105.
Fighters infiltrating Iraq reduced to trickle
“There has been a clear improvement of security here,” Odierno said. “The issue is, can we maintain that? Can the Iraqis maintain it? And that is what we’re working through now – we want them to be able to maintain this stability as we pull out. I believe we’re on track to do that.”
There are currently some 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Once they leave, Iraq’s national forces – an army now standing at 250,000 as well as more than 400,000 policemen – will be solely responsible for the country’s security.
The Iraqi forces, Odierno said, “are proving every day that they are becoming more competent.”
He attributed the recent upsurge in violence to “very small cells,” saying operations over the past two years had driven many enemy fighters back towards Mosul, capital of Ninawa province adjoining Syrian border; and towards Baqubah, capital of Diyala province, which lies between Baghdad and the Iranian border.
“We now are working very hard with the Iraqi security forces to finish off this last group of individuals who are still able to conduct some of these attacks,” he said.
Ninawa and Diyala are among the five remaining provinces where full authority has yet to be transferred to Iraqis. Authority in the other 13 provinces was handed over in stages, between July 2006 and October 2008.
Odierno acknowledged that Syria and Iran remain a problem, but said they were less so than in the past. Although a “facilitation network” continues to operate in Syria, the ability of foreign fighters to cross into Iraq from that country had been significantly reduced, he said.
While at a lower level than before, reported training, funding and provision of weapons from Iran continues. “It’s still very sophisticated and is still trying to impact the stability situation here in Iraq,” Odierno said of the activity.
Maj. Gen. David Perkins, Multi-National Force-Iraq director of strategic effects, explained last week that the June 30 deadline did not mean U.S. forces would no longer operate in the cities, but that combat forces would no longer be based in the cities from that date.
Taking part in a roundtable with bloggers – before the Mosul suicide bombing – Perkins voiced concern about recent high-profile attacks including some targeting Shias, saying they bore al-Qaeda’s fingerprints.
But he said there was “good news” in that the violence had drawn universal condemnation from the various segments of Iraqi society.
“If … all ethno-sectarian groups soundly reject it, then it means al-Qaeda has failed in their attempt to start ethno-sectarian violence,” he said.
Perkins also reported on the achievements in reducing the number of foreign enemy fighters crossing into Iraq from neighboring countries.
Whereas a year ago, 50-60 fighters would be entering the country a day, he said, now the number was “three or four a week, something like that.”
The five U.S. soldiers killed on Sunday were Staff Sgt. Gary L. Woods Jr., 24, of Lebanon Junction, Ky.; Staff Sgt. Bryan E. Hall, 32, of Elk Grove, Calif.; Sgt. Edward W. Forrest Jr., 25, of St. Louis, Mo.; Cpl. Jason G. Pautsch, 20, of Davenport, Iowa: and PV2 Bryce E. Gautier, 22, of Cypress, Calif.
The soldier killed in the April 5 mine detonation near the capital was Spc. Israel Candelaria Mejias, 28, of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico.
The soldier killed on Sunday has yet to be named.
U.S. Casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom in March
Army Sgt. Jeffrey A. Reed, 23, of Chesterfield, Va., died on March 2 in Balad, of wounds suffered when his vehicle was struck by a grenade in Taji, Salahaddin province.
Army Spc. Jessica Y. Sarandrea, 22, of Miami, Fla., died on March 3 in Mosul, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked her forward operating base with mortar fire.
Army 1st Lt. Daniel B. Hyde, 24, of Modesto, Calif., died on March 7 in Samarra, of wounds sustained in Tikrit when an explosive device struck his unit vehicle.
Army Spc. Gary L. Moore, 25, of Del City, Okla., died on March 16 in Baghdad, of wounds sustained when an explosive device struck his vehicle.
Five U.S. servicemen in Iraq died during March in incidents not related to combat. The Department of Defense said all the cases were under investigation.
Marine Lance Cpl. Patrick A. Malone, 21, of Ocala, Fla., died March 10 in Anbar province; Army Sgt. Jose R. Escobedo Jr., 32, of Albuquerque, N.M., died March 20 in Baghdad; Army Staff Sgt. Raphael A. Futrell, 26, of Anderson, S.C., died March 25 in Baghdad; Marine Lance Cpl. Nelson M. Lantigua, 20, of Miami, Fla., died March 31 in Anbar province; and Army Sgt. Devin C. Poche, 25, of Jacksonville, N.C., died Mar. 31 near Tikrit.