Attacks fell in November to their lowest monthly level since the Iraq war began in 2003, despite recent high-profile bombings aimed at shaking public confidence, a top U.S. commander said Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander here, blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for a spate of bombings that has killed nearly 50 people in Baghdad and elsewhere since Monday. The blasts took place despite an 80 percent drop in attacks nationwide since March, Austin said.
At least 33 people were killed and dozens wounded in multiple bombings Monday against Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and Mosul. Another 15 died in blasts Tuesday in the northern cities of Mosul and Tal Afar and in the southern city of Iskandariyah.
One civilian was killed and five were wounded Wednesday when a magnetic bomb attached to a minibus went off as the vehicle was carrying Education Ministry employees to work in eastern Baghdad, police said.
"What you've seen in the last several days is an attempt by al-Qaida and others to conduct high-profile attempts that are really aimed at intimidating the civilian population" and drawing media attention, Austin told reporters.
"Their intent is to erode the confidence of civilians and Iraqi security forces to create a picture that things are not going in the right direction."
U.S. combat deaths also down
Nevertheless, Austin said November "saw fewer attacks than any month since 2003" when the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. He gave no figures.
U.S. combat deaths were down in November too, falling to one of their lowest monthly levels of the war — eight. The drop suggests that extremists are focusing on Iraqi forces as the U.S. scales down its role on the battlefield.
Still, tensions remain among Iraq's rival ethnic and religious groups.
In the north, police said gunmen killed a member of a government-backed tribal council and three of his cousins Wednesday in Jalula, where rivalry between Arabs and Kurds runs deep. Applications to join the council were found in the victims' car, police said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is organizing tribal councils ostensibly to help local authorities enforce security. Critics, including Kurdish politicians, believe the councils are aimed at bolstering al-Maliki's position before next year's elections.
Austin attributed the fall in violence to an increase in the number of Iraqi security forces on the streets as well as the arrest in recent months of a number of key figures from al-Qaida and Shiite extremist "special groups."
In the latest arrest, U.S. troops captured two suspected members of the Shiite militant Kataib Hezbollah and killed another during raids early Wednesday in Baghdad's Karradah district, the U.S. said.
The U.S. believes Kataib Hezbollah is trained, financed and armed by Iran, a charge the Iranians deny.
"Coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or captured hundreds of individuals who played key roles in al-Qaida," Austin said. "We have also degraded the networks of the (Shiite) special groups criminals."
Attacks still a concern
But Austin said the continuing attacks were "still of concern" because they were aimed at killing large numbers of civilians and drawing "media attention."
U.S. troops are working more and more with Iraqi soldiers and police in hopes of improving their performance ahead of substantial withdrawals of American forces expected next year.
President-elect Barack Obama wants to bring most American combat troops home from Iraq within 16 months, although he has promised to consult with his military commanders and Iraqi officials first.
Starting Jan. 1, U.S. forces will be operating under a new security agreement approved last week by the Iraqi parliament. The agreement gives Iraqi authorities a role in approving and overseeing U.S. military operations.
It also provides a firm timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops — first out of Baghdad and other cities by the end of next June and out of the country by 2012.
Austin said he was confident that the transition to increased Iraqi oversight would be smooth. He said the U.S. had no major bases in Iraqi cities except for Baghdad and Mosul and was already conducting most operations alongside Iraqi troops.
"I don't think there will be a significant shift at the beginning of the year," he said. "There will be some change in how we are doing business. But I think we will be able to handle the shift without too much of a problem."