BAGHDAD - October is on course to record the second consecutive decline in US military and Iraqi civilian deaths and Americans commanders say they know why: the US troop increase and an Iraqi groundswell against Al Qaeda and Shi'ite militia extremists.
Major General Rick Lynch points to what the military calls "concerned citizens" - both Shi'ites and Sunnis who have joined the American fight. He says he's signed up 20,000 of them in the past four months.
"I've never been more optimistic than I am right now with the progress we've made in Iraq. The only people who are going to win this counterinsurgency project are the people of Iraq. We've said that all along. And now they're coming forward in masses," Lynch said in a recent interview at a US base deep in hostile territory south of Baghdad. Outgoing artillery thundered as he spoke.
Lynch, who commands the 3d Infantry Division and once served as the military spokesman in Baghdad, is a tireless cheerleader of the American effort in Iraq - and the death toll over the past two months appears to reinforce his optimism. But will it last?
As of yesterday, the Pentagon reported 28 US military deaths in October. The toll on US troops hasn't been this low since March 2006, when 31 soldiers died, an average of one death a day.
In September, 65 US soldiers died in Iraq.
Part of the trend can be seen in a volatile and violent band of lush agricultural land on Baghdad's southern border.
The commander of the battle zone, Lieutenant Colonel Val Keaveny, 3d Battalion, 509th Infantry (Airborne), said his unit has lost only one soldier in the past four months despite intensified operations against both Shi'ite and Sunni extremists, including powerful Al Qaeda in Iraq cells.
Keaveny attributes the startling decline to a decrease in attacks by the large number of militants who are being rounded up based on information provided by the citizen force, which has literally doubled the number of eyes and ears available to the military.
The efforts to recruit local partners began taking shape earlier this year in the western province of Anbar, which had become the virtual heartland for Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda bands. The early successes in Anbar - coming alongside a boost of 30,000 US soldiers into the Baghdad area - led to similar alliances in other parts of Iraq.
"People are fed up with fear, intimidation and being brutalized. Once they hit that tipping point, they're fed up, they come to realize we truly do provide them better hope for the future. What we're seeing now is the beginning of a snowball," said Keaveny, whose forces operate out of Forward Operating Base Kalsu, about 35 miles south of Baghdad.
Although US death figures appear to be in sharp decline, the number of Iraqi civilians and security forces killed shows a less dramatic drop. And any significant attack - by insurgents or civilians caught in the crossfire - could quickly wipe out the trend.
The current pace of civilian deaths would put October at fewer than 900. The figure last month was 1,023 and for August, 1,956, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press.
The AP tally comes from hospital, police, and military officials, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers. Insurgent deaths are not included. Other counts differ and some have given higher civilian death tolls.
Although the decline in deaths is notable, it is only one of many measures of potential progress in Iraq, said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst now with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Cordesman said a more balanced picture needs to include factors such as wounded civilians and soldiers, and the number of people fleeing their homes. The UN refugee agency said yesterday that between 1,000 and 2,000 Iraqis still leave their homes each day for safer havens elsewhere in the country or in neighboring nations. "It's just been going up slowly," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort in Geneva.
"The numbers we're dealing with here are only major acts of violence, the number of times people are killed," Cordesman said. "This is certainly progress . . . but it has to be put in perspective."
Lynch's mission also shows the slow pace of reclaiming areas from militants. His soldiers and their new local allies must work town by town, village by village.
Sunni Sheik Emad Ghurtani is among those helping.
"Honestly, I'm not going to hide this from you," Ghurtani told Lynch as the two stood talking at a newly established tribal check point near Haswa, a village just north of the Kalsu base.
"There is some Al Qaeda here in this area. But, God willing, we will get rid of them," he said. "The citizens are coming out. They're not afraid any more."
The guard detail at the checkpoint changed during the conversation. Three young men barely out of their teens, ancient Kalashnikovs in hand, strolled town the dirt road that led back into Ghurtani territory. Their US-provided uniforms are a vest with a reflective orange band akin to what road crews wear in the United States.
Ghurtani complained they hadn't been paid the $100 a month the Americans promised.
"If I get some of the money they need I can get them shoes, some vests and some ammunition. If they can find me cheap weapons, we can start getting these men ready. God willing, in the next few days," the sheik said.
Most heartening, Lynch said, was the checkpoint just across the road and over an irrigation canal. It was run by Shi'ites.
Lynch said the checkpoints on opposite sides of the road highlighted a kind of reconciliation by necessity: not fighting each other but protecting themselves from a common enemy.
"They have to be convinced that we're not leaving. That's the issue. If they were to think we're leaving we'd have also sorts of trouble," Lynch said, clambering over a makeshift earthen bridge across the canal.