Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The significant decline of violence in Iraq is well documented: fewer insurgent attacks, far less roadside bombs, fewer U.S. casualties and little or no sectarian warfare.

Last week, a series of reports by U.S. military officials in Iraq revealed the dramatic changes that have taken place there. A 55-percent drop in attacks since the surge offensive began nine months ago. Overall violence in key areas of Iraq has dropped to its lowest levels since the summer of 2005. Iraqi civilian casualties have also fallen, a staggering 60-percent drop since June, down 75 percent in Baghdad alone.

Life in much of Iraq has begun to return to what passes for near normal, though the war is far from over. Yet it is clear that the American military surge -- begun earlier this year -- is responsible for the changes taking place in this embattled nation that has become ground zero in the global war on terrorism.

The pessimists and defeatists who declared the surge doomed and prophesied that we were digging ourselves into a deeper hole have been proven wrong. The story of Iraq at this point is that terrorists have been killed, captured or driven out of territory retaken and cleansed by American and Iraqi forces -- a coalition that has stabilized much of the country.

But statistics are one thing, and the response of the Iraqi people is quite another. The most dramatic sign of improvement in Iraq can be seen in the number of Iraqi refugees who fled the violence at the height of the war and are now returning home in increasing numbers. Most of these returning Iraqis do so with the knowledge that their land is still a dangerous place, that the war is not over and that al-Qaeda killers still have the power to strike.

But there is a sense that the tide has turned in the Iraqis' favor, at least for now. There is renewed hope for their country's future, hope that Iraq will one day be united and safe. Hope can be a very powerful ally to a people beset by war, imparting a strength that can overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, hardships and grief. And little by little we are beginning to see a rebirth of hope in Iraq.

Perhaps the most important change to emerge from Gen. David Petraeus' counterinsurgency has been his efforts to cement nationalist alliances with Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders who have turned against their common al-Qaeda enemy.

One of the most interesting trends that has followed in the wake of the offensive has been a growing confidence among many Iraqis, a feeling that they are responsible for their country's destiny, that they must fight back when threatened by the thugs and killers in their midst.

When a bullet fired from a trucking convoy struck a young girl in the foot in a busy commercial area in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood last week, a group of Iraqis attacked the suspected assailants, hurling rocks at them as they hid in the truck. "I love my country. I want stability to be regained," said one of the men who helped take the stricken high school student to the hospital, as reported in the Washington Post.

It turned out the suspects were not responsible for the shooting, but the incident revealed a newfound courage among common Iraqi citizens, a realization that they must defend themselves when help is not available. "We did this because each of those men will kill 30 more people," one of the Iraqis said, according to the Post.

You would never know that anything had changed for the better in Iraq if you were listening to the Senate Democrats this month. They refused to even acknowledge that the situation in Iraq had vastly improved.

Indeed, despite all of the evidence proving that President Bush's surge has been successful, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid is still pushing legislation to set a timetable for the quick withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

Reid and his cohorts do not want to see a successful conclusion to the war in Iraq. They want a political issue that will fire up their party's anti-war base in the 2008 election.

But Bush, Petraeus and the Republicans are seeking something very different. They want to achieve enough progress there, and buy enough time, to allow the Iraqi military to take over the defense of their country so that we can start bringing our men and women home.

As of last week, the surge was working better than anyone could have possibly predicted and the Democrats' political exploitation of the war as a campaign issue was losing.

Look for the first contingent of U.S. forces to begin coming home by the end of the year at the earliest -- early next year at the latest.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.