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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 November 2007, 14:19 GMT
Washington diary: Changes in Iraq
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Have you noticed it too? It dawned on me some time last week. Something is missing from the front pages of my newspapers and the headlines of our TV bulletins.

US soldier at the scene of a car bomb in northern Baghdad, Oct 2007
The number of violent attacks against Iraqi civilians has fallen

There was a picture that was so common and had become such an ingrained part of my electronic wallpaper that I almost stopped noticing it, until I noticed its absence.

I'm talking about the murder and mayhem of Iraq. It has stopped being big news not because it has stopped being interesting, but because it has stopped happening to the same extent.

All the indicators for violence are down.

Compared to the beginning of the year, attacks against Iraqi civilians have declined by 55% in the country as a whole and by 75% in Baghdad, according to US military figures confirmed by the UN.

US military casualties are also dramatically reduced. October was one of the least bloody months since the beginning of the invasion.

Before I go on, let me add the provisos: overall, 2007 will still be the most violent year for US troops since the 2003 invasion. Iraqis are still dying in unacceptable numbers. And there is no suggestion that the decline in bloodshed is a permanent trend.

Military commanders on the ground are very careful not to crow about the successes. Nor is the White House doing so. They are hoping that the facts will eventually speak for themselves.

In the past, boastful words have turned to dust almost as soon as they were uttered.

Din of normality

So what has caused this decline? An extra 30,000 US troops on the ground since the beginning of the so-called surge have certainly made a difference.

US troops are watched by a family in the village of al-Awsat south of Baghdad
US troops are preferred by many Sunni leaders to al-Qaeda fighters

Shuttered Baghdad markets have re-opened for business. Silent streets have come to life with the sound of children playing football and mothers yelling for attention. The din of normality has trumped the silence of fear.

In Anbar province - which used to be the heart of the insurgency - Sunni leaders are fed-up with the high-handed brutality of al-Qaeda's fighters, deemed to have abused their hospitality and outstayed their welcome.

They have become unwanted house guests and, although the Sunni leaders still eventually want the Americans to leave, they see the al-Qaeda heavies as the greater menace. For now.

Sceptics have rightly pointed out that Anbar started turning against al-Qaeda before the surge even started.

But everyone likes to back a winner, even disgruntled Iraqis, and so is it not possible that local sheikhs started taking the Americans more seriously once they deployed a greater number of men?

After all, many of the festering problems in the past, most notably Falluja, took root in the fact that the US simply didn't have enough boots on the ground to finish the job and provide enough security.

The US occupation has fallen between two stools: it lacked a sufficiently light touch to woo local Iraqis and it wasn't brutal enough to cow them into obedience.

Shifting sands

Something else has changed. Masters at blowing things up, the US military has taken a more subtle approach to the enemy.

General David Petraeus
Gen Petraeus is deploying his counter-insurgency practices in Iraq

What's happening in Iraq reflects a much broader change of tactics and strategy currently being mulled over, chewed on, "war-gamed" and acted out in the unending flatness of Kansas.

This is the headquarters of the Combined Arms Centre Strategic Communications Office at Fort Leavenworth.

Essentially this is the military's leading think-tank and its most famous thinker is the same General David Petraeus, who co-wrote the army's manual on counter-insurgency and is now putting his principles into practice in the shifting sands of Iraq.

They are trying out lots of things in Fort Leavenworth. There is a programme they call "human terrain mapping", which encourages commanders to look at anthropological data, language, customs and history to understand what makes a local tribe tick.

The brass have decided to re-christen the programme "human terrain systems" because mapping conjured up images of targeting. Neither sounds very pretty.

The army has understood that soldiers who never leave Georgia or Arkansas until they're asked to police an exotic place like Iraq need a crash course in being "foreign"

Then there's something they call "red teaming". Red implies the enemy, and red teaming involves getting into the enemy's mind and shoes. Literally.

In one corner of Kansas there are US soldiers walking around with beards, jalabiyas, fez, wondering where Mecca is and trying to talk to each other in Arabic. Call it a strategic fancy dress party.

There is also huge emphasis on studying the one language that America currently needs most and hardly anyone has been learning. The army is offering financial bonuses of $4,000 and rising for anyone willing to learn a "hard language", which mostly means Arabic.

The other buzzwords are "soft power" and "full spectrum operations", which means that you use non-lethal carrots as well as deadly force.

Brains and brawn

If the first Gulf War trumpeted the triumph of high precision weaponry, the second Gulf War painfully illustrated its limitations. The sophistication of laser-guided munitions is no match for the crudeness of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.

US soldiers on patrol
Crude roadside bombs have shown up the failings of hi-tech weaponry

The conclusion reached - belatedly - by US commanders in Iraq is that brains are as important as brawn.

The one thing the army has not learned is how to limit the collateral damage to the English language of its club-footed terminology, but at least it has understood that soldiers who never leave Georgia or Arkansas until they're asked to police an exotic place like Iraq need a crash course in being "foreign".

This conversion may have come too late for Iraq. It may only work in conjunction with extra troops on the ground, many of which are due to come home anyway as their rotations end in the spring.

Then the guns could easily come out of the attic again and the violence could spike, especially if Iraq's hapless political masters do not use the window of opportunity to patch up their differences and do what they were elected to do: govern the country.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America, airing at 2300 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) every weekday

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