No News Is Good News in Baghdad

There was a one-line e-mail entry this weekend from ABC's Iraqi staffers, who keep a special list -- the depressing daily tally of sudden, violent deaths in Iraq's capital city. The list comes under the simple heading: "Today's Violence in Baghdad."

"According to our Interior Ministry source," the entry said, "there was only one unidentified body found in Baghdad today."

Two years ago, the daily list would average 50 or 60 bodies, or more. Some of them without heads. Many bearing signs of torture. Some of them children. Not to mention the mangled, dismembered corpses of those blown up by suicide bombers.

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But the fact is that -- since the surge of American troops into Baghdad last spring; since the American military started paying former members of the Sunni insurgency (known as The Sons of Iraq) to patrol their own neighbourhoods and turn against al Qaeda; and since the Shiite religious leader Moqtada al Sadr ordered his militia, the Mehdi Army, to put down their weapons -- the once-atrocious level of violence across Iraq has fallen like a stone.

Here are some of the latest statistics, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials who spoke to ABC News this week.

--Violent attacks have dropped 85 percent since June last year, across Iraq.

--The rate of U.S. military casualties has dropped 80 percent since last year.

--The rate of casualties in the Iraqi Security Forces has dropped 60 percent since last year.

--The number of roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombs has dropped by 56 percent since last year.

It's true that, as Winston Churchill once said, "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics." But these statistics are impressive, by any standard.

The obvious question is, can it last? Intelligence officials believe that al Qaeda in Iraq, which once operated with virtual impunity in certain areas like Anbar province, Diyala province and the town of Mosul, is now a degraded organization confined to rural areas of Iraq, with disrupted supply lines and a diminished pool of foreign fighters.

Better security on the borders, especially the western border with Syria, has reduced the flow of arms and men, officials say. Al Qaeda's former allies, the Sons of Iraq, have turned against them. Many have been killed or captured.

Having said that, officials also say that al Qaeda will always remain a threat in Iraq, and that the average number of suicide attacks in the past year was 15 to 20 a month.

Of course, there were no al Qaeda fighters in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion, at all. This was pointed out in the classified, N.I.E. report (the National Intelligence Estimate, representing more than a dozen U.S. intelligence agencies) two years ago, which said that the invasion of Iraq and the chaos that followed had actually spawned a new generation of Islamic terrorists, and made global terrorism even worse.

There's no doubt that the "Sons of Iraq," the former insurgents and allies of Al Qaeda, have been highly effective against the terrorist network, since 14 Sunni tribal sheikhs turned away from al Qaeda in disgust in Anbar province almost two years ago and allied themselves with the Americans, starting the movement known as The Awakening or Sons of Iraq.

They're being paid for their loyalty by the U.S. military at the rate of $10 per man per day, but as far as the military is concerned, it's been worth every penny.

The Sons of Iraq now number about 90,000. What's worrying is that the Shiite-dominated government has started to order the arrest of hundreds of these men, many of whom have fled the once-violent areas that they have helped to keep safe.

And the Mehdi Army, now transformed into a mainly peaceful movement on the orders of their spiritual leader, the Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, could take up arms again.

There's another wild card, -- the so-called Special Groups: small, elite units of Iraqi Shiite fighters based in Iranian training camps in Qom, Mashad, Ahvaz and Tehran, according to U.S. intelligence officials. They might be activated any time.

But for the moment, violence is down and stability is up, as negotiations continue between Iraqi and American officials for a formal agreement to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq by 2011, and from all towns and cities by June next year, if conditions remain good.

On Monday the Marines officially hand over control of Anbar Province to Iraqi security forces. Two years ago, Anbar province was a no-go area where U.S. troops controlled nothing beyond their own bases.

So there are grounds for optimism. But it's still useful to remember a point made by the military analyst and columnist Gwynne Dyer, who once said: "Iraq is just as likely to break up if U.S. troops stay, or if they leave."