Bloodshed Down in Iraq

The Bush administration is starving for good news out of Iraq, and it may finally have some: new U.S. government statistics showing that violent attacks of all kinds are down to levels not seen since 2005. But until recently, the administration appears to have resisted acknowledging a key element of the new data, because it flies in the face of President George W. Bush's ongoing rhetorical confrontation with Iran's clerical regime. According to three senior U.S. officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, the decline in Iraq violence also includes a decrease in the number of attacks attributable to insurgents backed or armed by Iran. Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed to NEWSWEEK that "there has indeed been a drop" in such attacks, but he added that "it's not entirely clear what the reason for that is."

Overall trends show a significant drop in violence over the last several months, according to previously unpublished military statistics obtained by NEWSWEEK. During a single week in mid-September, attacks in Iraq totaled about 900—down from about 1,700 a week in June. The number of attacks increased slightly in late September and early October during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But according to the statistics, the just-ended Ramadan holiday was significantly less violent this year than in the previous two years.

The crucial question is, why? Administration spokesmen have publicly attributed the decline in violence to the success of the administration's troop "surge" policies as well as military operations against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Other factors include improvements to Iraqi security forces and growing revulsion among Sunni tribal leaders over jihadi attacks on their communities. The decline in Iranian-backed violence is harder to explain—and despite the new data, some officers on the ground in Baghdad still aren't buying it. But officials back in Washington cite numerous possible reasons for the turnaround. Multiple sources suggest that U.S. operations against Iranian influence—which have included rounding up alleged Iranian operatives and Iranian-backed insurgents—have taken "quite a bite" out of insurgent cells and supply networks, one official says. Another factor could be that the insurgents have decided to wage fewer attacks. Multiple officials note that radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has close ties with Iran, recently ordered his militia to settle down. It's also possible, two U.S. officials say, that Iranian leaders are responding to diplomatic lobbying from the Iraqi government and scaling back some of their support for the insurgency.

No one in Washington believes that Iran-fomented violence has ceased to be a problem. A senior official noted that a recent arms convoy seized in Herat, Afghanistan, and destined for Taliban rebels, contained IED components similar to those seized earlier in Baghdad and southern Iraq. U.S. officials believe that the Herat consignment originated with elements from Iran's Revolutionary Guard. They concede, however, that they do not know how high up in the Iranian government authorization for the shipment came from or whether it was part of a high-level Iranian strategy to bleed U.S. forces in the region.