BAGHDAD – December emerged as possibly the safest month for U.S. forces in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the least deadly for Iraqi civilians in the past 12 months, but overall, 2007 was the bloodiest year of the war, according to figures released Monday.
The Iraqi Ministry of Health said 481 civilians died nationwide last month in violence such as bombings, mortar attacks and sectarian slayings. It said 16,232 civilians died throughout the year. The 2006 death toll was 12,320.
On the military front, 21 U.S. personnel died in December, according to Department of Defense figures released by the independent Web site icasualties.org, making the average daily death tally last month the lowest since the start of the war. It was possible the military could report additional deaths for the month in coming days, but the casualty number was striking when compared to the December 2006 total of 112.
At least 899 American troops were killed during 2007, according to the Web site, the highest annual toll since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
After high monthly death tolls early in 2007, the number of civilians and U.S. soldiers and civilians slain has been decreasing since the U.S. military completed a troop buildup in June. But few people were celebrating the recent downturn in violence as proof of irreversible progress.
If anything, U.S. military and political officials are warning that recent months’ security gains have opened the door to new challenges, some of which could spawn fresh violence as Iraqis jostle to reclaim their lives. These issues include satisfying roughly 70,000 young men, most of them members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, who have volunteered as security forces and who expect employment from the Shiite-run government. Iraqi officials also must find a way to accommodate refugees who return to the country and need housing, essential services and jobs.
There also remains the problem of the Iraqi government’s failure to pass major legislation considered essential to fostering trust between religious and ethnic groups. This includes bills to manage Iraq’s oil wealth; to expand job opportunities for former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party; and to decide the powers of provincial governments.
“We have a window. I don’t know how long that window is,” said the U.S. military’s No. 2 commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, during a recent meeting with foreign journalists.
Odierno described “signs of a return to normalcy” that he had seen recently in Baghdad: trucks delivering big-ticket retail items such as heaters and washing machines to shops; children playing soccer on public playing fields.
“The key piece now is, can we sustain this and can it be sustained so the government can move forward?” he said.