"Correction Appended: Oct. 31, 2007
The horrible discovery in Diyala Province Monday was disturbing even by the standards of Iraq's running sectarian violence. Iraqi police said they found 20 decapitated bodies dumped near a police station west of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province. That same day a suicide bomber on a bicycle careened into a Baquba police station, killing 29.
The violence was of course nothing new, especially for the Baquba area, which remains the most troubled region in Iraq outside Baghdad. But the bloodshed showed how the success of the surge of U.S. forces in Baghdad and Anbar Province nine months on has perhaps gone as far as it can toward controlling Iraq's violence.
Last week Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, sat before reporters with his Iraqi counterpart, Lt. Gen. Abud Qanbar. The two tallied their gains in Baghdad against Sunni extremists and Shi'ite militia fighters over the last nine months. Qanbar ticked off statistics: Car bombs down 65%; civilian deaths from car bombs decreased by 80%; attacks against Iraqi security dropped by 62%. Also, the monthly death toll from sectarian violence nationwide for October is expected to be the lowest since February 2006, when sectarian killings spread rapidly after the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. Data offered by Iraq's ministries for defense, interior and health show that 285 Iraqis died in sectarian violence in October. At its peak last year, the monthly death toll for sectarian violence in Iraq was nearly 2,000.
"The real indicator of improved security for me is how Iraqi people feel," Odierno said. "And whenever I travel around Baghdad Iraqis tell me how much safer they feel in their neighborhoods."
Odierno even went so far as to say that Baghdad could be between 40 and 50 percent under the control of Iraqi security forces by a year from now. Meanwhile, U.S. forces officially handed the southern city of Karbala over to Iraqi control Monday, a move U.S. officials touted as another positive step. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who appeared in Karbala for the handover ceremony, offered perhaps the most clear-eyed observation amid the spate of relatively good news. "Allow me to say that we are late, very late, to reconstruct, to rebuild our forces for reasons that I do not want to mention here," Maliki said.
The unmentioned reasons behind the slow actions of Maliki's government range from deeply ingrained sectarianism in Iraqi security forces to incompetence and graft among government officials. That has left a feeble Iraqi government clearly unable to maintain and further the gains in security made with the help of U.S. surge forces, which are set to dwindle in the months ahead according to the original surge plan.
The prognosis for Iraq, barring a dynamic transformation on the part of the Iraqi government very soon, is grimly apparent. As U.S. forces lessen their presence in the coming months, killings of the kind seen Monday in Diyala will persist there and most likely spread to areas calmed by the increase of U.S. forces. Rising Shi'ite militia unrest in southern Iraq will go on unchecked, leaving the fate of Iraq's richest and most populous territory uncertain. Recently subdued Anbar Province will operate as a kind of Sunni semi-independent emirate, barring any meaningful administration from a central government, much as the northern Kurdish territory already does. And Baghdad will be on edge, watching for signs that the relative calm in the city may be giving way to another wave of violence.
"The government needs to spin up," said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. "A single word at the time I got here that in my mind distilled modern Iraq was 'fear.' And to a significant degree, you know, fear is still very much part of the scene."
The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno has even gone so far as to say that Baghdad could be entirely under the control of Iraqi security forces in a year. In fact, what he said was that Baghdad could be between 40 and 50 percent under the control of Iraqi security forces by a year from now.