BAGHDAD -- The No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq warned yesterday that security gains from President Bush's troop buildup were just beginning to be felt and could be derailed if U.S. forces began leaving too soon.
But Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno added that if attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi troops and civilians did not soar in the next three or four months, it might be possible to maintain security in Iraq "with less [American] troops."
Odierno's assessment of the troop buildup's impact painted a picture of a plan stymied by Iraq's political problems but showing hope six months after its launch. It was neither extremely optimistic nor grim, and it offered vague echoes of remarks delivered by Bush a day earlier during an unannounced visit to Iraq.
In an address to cheering troops in western Anbar province, Bush said Monday that U.S. military and political leaders had told him that "if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces." Bush's visit was limited to Anbar, where violence has dropped significantly since many Sunni tribal leaders who once harbored insurgents began cooperating with U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
Odierno said attacks on military forces and Iraqi civilians had fallen to their lowest level in 15 months nationwide, but he did not provide numbers. He acknowledged that sectarian killings continued in some Baghdad neighborhoods and that militants still had the power to put a truck bomb in a large populated area or to try to retake territory controlled by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The next month and a half, during the run-up to Ramadan and throughout the Islamic holy month, should help clarify whether troop reductions make sense, Odierno said. He said that there had been an increase in bombings and other violence in the days before Ramadan in previous years but that this had not been the case so far this year.
Later, the U.S. military reported that 23 car bombs had gone off in Baghdad in the past three months compared with 42 during the same period last year.
"That would be a big indicator to me, if we can hold it through Ramadan," Odierno said of the attack numbers.
At the same time, he said the only way to ensure that whatever security gains have been made would continue is if the Iraqi government instituted political reforms that quell sectarian tensions.
"You can't fix it through military action," he said. "You're going to have to have government policy that is going to take political action in order to really solve this problem, and I think that comes later on."
Yesterday was a quiet day by Iraqi standards, but police nonetheless found a dozen bodies of men believed to be victims of sectarian murders in Baghdad.
In the northern city of Mosul, an association representing Iraqi journalists announced that television journalist Aamr Malalla Rashidi had been shot to death. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 90 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the U.S-led invasion in March 2003.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.