BAGHDAD After weeks of relative calm, two questions are being asked in war-torn Iraq and in the United States:
Will it last? And when can American forces start coming home?
Real peace, of course, has hardly broken out, and the improved security environment may be fleeting. But recent substantial gains by the Iraqi army, flagging insurgent violence and civilians reclaiming a sense of confidence have produced expectations that are higher than at any time since 2003.
It's increasingly reasonable to assume that Iraq's security environment will continue to improve slowly, maybe at the margins and with the chance that things could go south fast.
Generals and politicians avoid responding directly to questions about troop withdrawals because an answer would determine whether America stays here indefinitely as an occupier or leaves in a way yet to be decided. Indeed, many Iraqis believe that the Status of Forces Agreement being negotiated with Washington is a pretext to allow a permanent U.S. military presence, a charge that American officials deny. The agreement would establish a continued U.S. presence in Iraq once the United Nations' permissions expire Dec. 31.
One clue about withdrawal is what's already on the record.
Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that after the last "surge" combat brigade leaves Iraq in July, there'll be a 45-day period for him to assess the situation and make recommendations for further reductions. Over the last few months, some 12,000 troops have returned to the U.S. without being replaced.
Petraeus will present his recommendations to his civilian and military superiors in Washington and at Central Command this fall. But as he noted in April, this approach "does not, to be sure, allow establishment of a set withdrawal timeline."
Emotions here about the recent calm range from frustration to resignation to hope.
That hope appears at all encourages the government and its American sponsors. There's no denying the recent military gains. Insurgents still attack, but not as often and not as lethally. Iraqi forces are bigger and more aggressive. One senior U.S. administration official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk for publication, was moved this week to insist that Iraq's recent safety record "ain't a lull. It's a crisp decline now 17 months in duration."
Despite the encouraging signs, Iraqi and U.S. officials know that much more needs to be done before peace can be declared.
Some parts of Iraq around the northern city of Mosul, for instance remain contested between multinational forces and insurgents. Military analysts verge on predicting a high-profile attack in or around Mosul with mass casualties.
In addition, insurgents of all stripes have changed their tactics using female suicide bombers instead of car bombs and other explosives.
Even if recent events don't portend a permanent change, nearly all the numbers the past few weeks suggest that Iraq's center finally may be holding. Of most interest to Americans is the figure 19: the number of U.S. troops who died here in May. It's a still-grim but welcome low point since the war began in March 2003. Through the first five months of the year, 179 American troops died, well below the 475 killed during the same period a year ago.
Iraqi casualty figures also have leveled off. Iraqi government figures put the total number of violent deaths for the first five months at this year at 7,854, up slightly from 7,829 in the same period last year. However, officials point out that major operations in the southern city of Basra in March and April swelled the total.