State of Iraq war mixed as conflict drags on through third sweltering summer |

State of Iraq war mixed as conflict drags on through third sweltering summer

Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Ear-piercing blasts from mortar fire into the Green Zone have almost ceased, and security is better along some highways around the capital. But civilian deaths are running high, and U.S. troops face more attacks than they did this time last year.As the Iraq war drags through a third broiling summer, the dying goes on – and neither the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, nor elections, nor overtures to the Sunnis, nor steps toward a new constitution have been enough to stop it.About 50 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq in July – at least 16 in the past week. According to American military figures, insurgents attacked U.S. and coalition forces an average of 68 times a day during the month.By comparison, the average daily rate of attacks for July last year was 47.Since the announcement of the new Iraqi government on April 28, more than 2,100 Iraqis – most of them civilians – have been killed, according to an Associated Press count. The actual figure is likely much higher.U.S. commanders are not describing the insurgency in terms of “last throes” – Vice President Dick Cheney’s heavily criticized Memorial Day observation about the conflict.Instead, the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, told reporters last week that the United States and its partners could begin drawing down their forces in 2006 if the Iraqi political process stays on track and the insurgency does not grow.Significantly, he did not say troops would start leaving once the insurgency is defeated.Amid the drumbeat of death and destruction, it is easy to forget just how far conditions have deteriorated since Baghdad fell to the U.S. military in April 2003.During the first year of the American presence, journalists and other Westerners thought nothing of driving to Baghdad from Amman, Jordan – a 10-hour journey through cities like Ramadi and Fallujah – or north from the capital to Kirkuk or Mosul.Those routes are now considered death traps for foreigners because of the threat of kidnappings. Instead of wandering through Baghdad’s commercial districts of Karradah or Mansour, the remaining foreigners spend their time holed up in guarded hotels or the Green Zone, venturing out only in the daylight with armed escorts.The picture is not altogether grim. Much of the country – notably the Shiite south and the Kurdish self-ruled region in the north – is relatively quiet.On Saturday, Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, identified seven Shiite and Kurdish cities safe enough to hand over from coalition to Iraqi control.They include Karbala and Najaf, two Shiite shrine cities where American forces battled militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr last year. Al-Sadr still wants U.S. troops to leave – but now he’s using a petition drive rather than violence to encourage that goal.Heightened security has reduced the number of car bombings and ambushes along the road to Baghdad International Airport. And residents of villages south of the capital say fatal ambushes on the highway to Najaf have dropped from about one a day to one every week or 10 days, thanks to more frequent U.S. and Iraqi patrols.As the conflict persists, both sides adapt to the fighting style of the other, abandoning tactics that don’t work. In many areas, American commanders have found that cultivating local tribal sheiks is more effective than bombs and bullets.The insurgents have, for the most part, stopped firing mortar shells and rockets into the Green Zone, the well-guarded home to U.S. and Iraqi officials – a tactic that grabbed headlines but accomplished little else. Two rockets fired at the U.S. Embassy on the eve of the Jan. 30 election killed two Americans. But U.S. forces tracked down the attackers and arrested seven of them within hours.Classic infantry ambushes are tricky for the insurgents too, in the face of overwhelming American firepower. Last Thursday, insurgent snipers killed two American Marines on patrol near Haditha.U.S. commanders responded by calling in jets, which devastated three buildings and killed seven attackers, the command said.In response, insurgents have turned to suicide bombers as their weapon of choice. Attackers either drive vehicle bombs or strap explosives onto their bodies and detonate themselves in a crowd, killing dozens in spectacular attacks.That enables insurgents to target their victims more precisely, inflicting casualties while losing fewer of their own fighters than in a head-on clash with the Americans.Vail – Colorado

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