Violence in Iraq is at its lowest levels since the first year of the US invasion, finally opening a window for reconciliation among rival sects, the second-ranking US general said as Iraqi forces formally took control of security across half the country.
Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the man responsible for the ground campaign in Iraq, said on Sunday that the first six months of this year were probably the most violent period since the US-led invasion in 2003. The past six months, however, had seen some of the lowest levels of violence since the conflict began, Odierno said, attributing the change to an increase in both US troops and better-trained Iraqi forces.
"I feel we are back in '03 and early '04. Frankly I was here then, and the environment is about the same in terms of security in my opinion," he said. "What is different from then is that the Iraqi security forces are significantly more mature."
Meanwhile, violence killed at least 27 Iraqis on Sunday -- 16 of them members of a US-backed neighborhood patrol killed in clashes with al-Qaeda in a province neighboring Baghdad. Thirty-five al-Qaeda fighters also died in that fighting, Iraqi officials said.
Anbar Province, once plagued by violence, only recorded 12 attacks in the past week, down from an average of 26 per week over the past three months,Odierno said.
"The violence last week was the lowest ever," he said.
"So that kind of defines 2007 very simply. A long hard fight and a lot of sacrifice by a lot of soldiers, Marines and airmen to get there," he said.
A planned reduction of troops to about 130,000 at the end of next year from a high of around 165,000 at the height of the "surge" should not derail that effort, but Iraq's government must take advantage of the improved security, Odierno said. There are 154,000 US troops in Iraq now.
"We have a window, I don't know how long that window is, but there is a window because of the security to move forward," Odierno told a small group of journalists at his headquarters in Baghdad. "We need to get policies in place by the central government to do this."
One of the most important, he said, was a draft bill to ease curbs implemented against supporters of former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
Iraqi lawmakers are debating the US-backed draft law that would pave the way for the creation of a National Commission for Accountability and Justice, an independent body that would screen former Baath members.
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