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U.S. troop losses plunge in Iraq

Combat fatalities could be as low as 23 for October, a level not seen since 2006. Iraqi losses also fall.

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US troop losses in Iraq have plummeted in the past few months to levels not seen since early 2006 – an encouraging sign, say analysts and defense officials, that the US strategy is working, at least for now.

American defense officials cite recent weapons finds, disruption of bombmaking cells, and the 2007 "surge" of US forces as contributing to a dramatic improvement in security in many parts of Iraq, cutting casualties among both Iraqi civilians and US troops.

It is too soon to know if the trend will last or whether the reduction of American forces in coming months, as planned, will undermine what remains a fragile security on the ground.

Nor does it signal that victory is imminent. Instead, the security gains present a "window of opportunity" that will stay open only if economic opportunity, government coherence, and stronger Iraqi security forces materialize in Iraq, says a senior defense official.

"If those things don't occur, then you'll begin to see things backslide on the military side," says the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak more freely.

It's far from clear if the pieces that US officials see as needing to come together in Iraq will do so. Much of the Iraqi government is still not functional, and US commanders marvel at its inability to spend its budget – seen as key to establishing permanent security by stimulating economic activity and restoring basic services to Iraqis.

120 deaths in May; 23 in October

The Pentagon reported 23 service members killed in combat this month as of Tuesday, noting that insurgent and other attacks have plunged in violence-prone places like Baghdad. As recently as May, as the Pentagon completed its "surge" of about 30,000 additional US forces and began military operations in more dangerous areas of Iraq, US combat deaths were five times as high, with 120 killed. This month, by contrast, the casualty rate is on par with that of March 2006, when 27 service members were killed. Since the beginning of the war, only a few months have seen fewer fatalities than this month, including February 2004, arguably the predawn of the insurgency in Iraq, when 12 US service members were killed.

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