Baghdad -- As Iraq's government trumpeted yesterday a dramatic decline in violence, describing it as a sign that sectarian warfare is waning, U.S. officials warned that the gains will be short-lived if the nation's leaders do not use the relative calm to advance political reconciliation.
Also yesterday, Iraqi officials arrested 43 people, including two Americans, after guards protecting a convoy injured a woman, setting the stage for a showdown over foreign security companies' immunity from prosecution here.
The incident in Baghdad's Karada district was relatively minor compared with a slew of recent shootings involving private security companies. The worst, in which at least 17 Iraqis were killed, occurred in September and involved guards working for Blackwater USA, which protects State Department officials here.
A day after U.S. military officials proclaimed that bombings and other attacks had dropped 55 percent nationwide since June, the Iraqi government released figures showing steeper declines in the capital and nearby areas. According to its figures, there were 323 violent attacks in the governorate of Baghdad last month, compared with 1,134 in June.
The violence remains high, but it is a vast improvement, and one that turned government spokesman Ali Dabbagh nearly giddy as he spoke on Arabia TV yesterday. Dabbagh said Baghdad had "defeated the forces of darkness."
"Certainly we still have more to do, but no one can deny that we have passed the difficult stage in Baghdad, the stage that we all had fears of sliding to a civil war," he said.
Dabbagh echoed U.S. officials who have cited various factors for decreasing violence: the recruitment of ex-insurgents to work alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces; a decision by Sunni tribal leaders to turn on insurgents; and the deployment of another 28,500 U.S. forces to Iraq between February and June this year as part of a U.S. security plan.
But military and government officials warned at the start of the clampdown that it would not have lasting success unless it was matched with political progress. It is a message being repeated with a new urgency, now that Iraqi leaders can no longer blame huge bombs, mass abductions, and street-by-street fighting as an excuse for political paralysis.
The No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, said the government has a window of opportunity, perhaps until next summer, to act before gains begin unraveling.
"Security is better, so now is the time to reach out to the other parts of the Iraqi populace. It's time to really look at delivering services to all Iraqis in Baghdad and around" the country.
Witnesses said the injured woman was hit while trying to cross a street in Karada, a middle-class neighborhood of homes and businesses. Some said she appeared to be walking too slowly and was knocked to the ground when a man in the convoy opened his vehicle's door as he passed.
Moussawi, though, said the woman was shot.
The arrests are "a message to security companies that no one is above the law," said Dabbagh, according to Reuters.
No one has been arrested in shootings in October and November or in scores of previous incidents, fueling anger among Iraqis and leading to government demands for an end to their immunity from prosecution for deaths or injuries to Iraqis.
The latest incident could be a test of how far the government is willing to carry its fight with U.S. officials, who were responsible for the 2004 ruling that has been used to protect foreign security guards from prosecution.
Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said those arrested were in a multi-vehicle convoy and included Iraqis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, as well as the Americans.
Neither the U.S. Embassy nor U.S. military officials had any further information on those who had been arrested or what company they work for. There are dozens of foreign security companies operating in Iraq.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.