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Fewer Mortar, Rocket Attacks in Iraq, U.S. Military Says

November 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave, welcome back.

We are hearing that mortar and rocket attacks in Baghdad are on the decline. How do we know that? And if it’s true, why?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: The Americans attribute the decline in the mortar attacks to a number of factors, including doing a better job of finding where these attacks are coming from, but also a larger change in the security situation, where the Sunni side has basically agreed to work with the Americans and turn against al-Qaida. And that’s minimized the demand for Shiite reprisals from the militias. So, at this point, it’s just another sign of what appears to be a calm, or at least a lull.

GWEN IFILL: Now, help me out with this. We have also been hearing recently that there were record numbers of troops who died this year in Iraq, but these measurements seem to show that going down, as well. Is it just a different standard of measurement that we’re using?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, it’s just a different time period. I mean, earlier this year, American troops were involved in a large, very, very heavy operational tempo. They were out and going into areas that were dangerous that they hadn’t been in before, and they were finding a lot of resistance.

At this point, a lot of those areas have either been controlled or the violence has moved to other areas. And so there’s a little bit less activity around the country, and the degree of activity is smaller. That’s one major factor, in terms of American deaths.

But also, you know, as I said, there have been some changes in terms of just the strategy on the Sunni side, which is generally the side that’s blamed for large, dramatic attacks, like car bombs and many of the attacks on American troops.

So, you know, right now what you have is some of the results of a year of effort, or at least nearly a year of effort. And the question that everyone is trying to figure out is, is this temporary or is it permanent? And that’s something that, you know, we may not know for a while.

Sense of more security

GWEN IFILL: So this squares with Prime Minister Maliki's comments over the weekend that suicide bombings and other kinds of bombings are also down. Is that right?

DAMIEN CAVE: Right. I mean, by just about every indicator, it's clear that the violence is down. And, you know, in Baghdad, you can feel that. I mean, in several of the neighborhoods I've been to this week, there is a sense of more security. People, you know, are excited that they can go out after dark, which is something that they couldn't do for a year or a year-and-a-half ago.

The thing is, for many Iraqis, it still feels like it's not a complete job. And the American military commanders tell me that, too. Last night, a brigade commander told me, "Listen, there's still a lot of work to do." And I think that's the general consensus, that, yes, things are better, but they're far from good.

GWEN IFILL: So there are no sighs of relief just yet?

DAMIEN CAVE: No, not yet. And it's actually interesting to see how much caution there is on the part of many of the soldiers that I've talked to and many of the Iraqis. Like I said, there's still a sense of, is this the calm before the storm, or is this the beginning of a dramatic change?

And even once you have security, it doesn't eliminate lots of the other problems that are here that appear to be on the rise, things like corruption, things like inefficient government services. So at this point, a lot of people are looking not just towards security, but looking past that to, where do we go from here? And that's going to be the challenge moving forward, is how you clean up, even if security does stay stable, how you clean up the mess that's been made and the difficulties that have been coming to the fore for the past three years.

Drawdown of U.S. troops

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration is claiming this as fruit of the strategy which they put forward when they sent the surge in, but there will also be troop drawdowns. Do we see signs of that yet?

DAMIEN CAVE: You know, there a lot of units that are starting to cycle out, but at this point, the numbers haven't changed too much, in part because there's transition with the troops coming in overlapping with those who are going out. It will take a little while for the numbers to actually go down.

But there is a sense in many areas of the city and of the country where units are going out and the decisions are now being made about which places will have the same number of troops or which places will perhaps have some fewer. It's so hard to tell where exactly that's going to shake out, but you're beginning to feel that on the streets.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any sense yet that Iraqis who fled during the worst of this to Syria or to Jordan that they're beginning to return home?

DAMIEN CAVE: This is actually one of the big questions right now, is the degree to which that's happening. The Iraqi government has said that about 7,000 families have come back. Other organizations that track this have said that it's actually closer to 3,700.

Regardless, that's a small fraction of the four million Iraqis who have been moved around in recent years and been displaced, either internally or externally. At this point, it appears also that there's still more people leaving than coming back.

Just this week, I've talked to several people who told me that they've been moving every three months for the past year and they have a hard time seeing when they'll be able to go back to their homes. So it is an encouraging sign that anyone is coming back, but it's still very much a small, small piece of the overall picture.

Frustration with government leaders

GWEN IFILL: Damien, we also spent a fair amount of time wondering about the political strategies in Iraq and whether, in fact, there was going to be some sort of government -- some coming together of government leaders. Has there been any progress on that of late?

DAMIEN CAVE: Very little. And frustration is growing among everyone from the American military commanders to Iraqis in the street to even, you know, Iraqi army generals. I was speaking to a general the other day who was expressing extreme frustration with the government for not taking advantage of what they see as an opportunity to really improve things.

Because there is concern that this may be temporary, that this window may close in the next few months if something isn't done by the government, the sense of urgency on the streets and among the military, whether it's the Iraqi or the Americans, is very high. And the government just hasn't been able to respond or hasn't seemed willing to respond to that just yet.

Caution on the ground

GWEN IFILL: I know you've been talking to the generals, but I wonder if the troops, the actual people on the ground, are as optimistic as their leaders are right now.

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, I mean, I think they're actually as cautious or more cautious than their commanders. I mean, at the end of the day, there is a sense of, "Well, how much will this last? We know we're leaving, and it's better now." But a lot of these guys know that they'll be coming back in a year. And so they're far from sure that, when they come back in a year, it will be as good as it is now and not worse.

You know, there is a concern. A lot of what's helping change things, according to a lot of folks I've talked to, is money. American dollars are helping to pay these volunteers who are working against al-Qaida. There's a lot of money that's going towards tips for those who are searching for caches. And so many American soldiers on the ground are wondering whether this is real loyalty or is it just loyalty to the dollars.

GWEN IFILL: Damien Cave of the New York Times, once again, thank you very much.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure. My pleasure.