The 'Ramadan spike'

The coming month is expected to be pivotal in determining the course of the war, owing to the impending briefing before Congress by the senior military leader and ambassador in Iraq. Over the days of summer it began to look like the death ledger heaved upon us daily by most of the media would become less relevant to the Democratic leadership strategy. Not only have the vaunted counter-insurgency tactics of Petraeus wooed former insurgent enemies onto the anti-al Qaeda team, but the key media metric of American deaths has failed the Democrats in a major way.

It was only last June when Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent President Bush a letter claiming that the surge in Iraq had failed. Their pronouncement was partially based on that grim ledger of  U.S. casualties. The June letter, sent before the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops had even been completed read
"In fact, the last two months of the war were the deadliest to date for US troops."
The Democratic leadership got it wrong then and they have it even more wrong now. The DOD maintains a website on which monthly fatalities are tracked and April and November of 2004 were both more deadly than April or May of 2007. The very premise of Reid and Pelosi's argument was easily fact-checked and found erroneous. But why quibble with facts when Democratic strategies for American defeat are on the line?

The Department of Defense is lagging behind on the website updating  casualty statistics and has not yet updated it for August 2007. But a private website called does a good job of paralleling the DOD reporting, and it provides a better analytical product than the DOD. According to that website, although overall U.S. deaths in Iraq in August were up slightly from the previous month, the key metric of killed by hostile fire (including IEDs) plummeted.

The slight increase in August was mainly caused by two separate helicopter accidents which killed nineteen of our finest. The number of reported fatalities due to hostile action for August was 60 according to You would need to go back a year to August of 2006 to find a lower total. In addition, while the hostile fire death toll was one person higher for August of this year than for 2006 it was also lower than it was for 2005 and 2004.

This number is perhaps more telling as to surge strategy success or failure because it shows the enemy's intentions in near real time. Will the enemy fight harder or tire out and concede? Winning wars after all is about making the enemy believe he can't win and then opening up a reasonable alternative for him to take.

But perhaps more important to determining the status of the surge is the fact that this summer saw the first breakage of the run-up to the "Ramadan spike". The month-long Islamic holiday of Ramadan can happen in any season, thanks to the lunar calendar employed by Islam with no leap-year corrective.  But in recent years of the rotation cycle it has been in the Fall. The "Ramadan spike" is not precise and numbers can be found that are outliers from the norm, but there is a general, detectable trend.

As you can see by these numbers, ( the end of summer foretells the autumn Ramadan spike with an upsurge from July to August usually peaking in October or November.  In 2004, the numbers of fatalities to hostile fire went up from 45 in July to 63 in August. In 2005, the numbers went from 48 to 75. In 2006 it went from 41 to 59. This year it went from 74 in July to 60 in August which marks the first reduction in the run-up to Ramadan since the anti-Iraqi forces began to fight in earnest at the end of 2003. It is the first downward trend in the most violent part of the year.

It may be tempting to dismiss this simply because the violence this year was so high that any reduction would seem significant - a fake good news story. But it should be noted that this August saw less hostile fire fatalities than August of 2005, before the outbreak of the "civil war" as most of the major media declared it last year. That means it is not just a reduction from the skyrocketing numbers during the heaviest sectarian violence but a return to conditions before the "civil war".

Is the breakage of the "Ramadan spike" trend an anomaly or is it a good indicator? Well, as they say in the advertisements for mutual funds, past performance is no guarantee of future results. But September has been a promising month up to this point in relative terms.

As of this writing, lists 7 hostile fire fatalities. If that trend holds then we can expect approximately 42 hostile fire fatalities this month. We must keep in mind that this low number would flummox not only the "Ramadan spike" but also the ‘al Qaeda/militia/insurgency' escalation which we can soon expect because of the looming Congressional testimony. It may be that these groups are saving up their biggest attacks to occur on the very day of the testimony. But typically the violence escalates before a significant event not just the day of.

Can one imagine an Iraq in which there will ever be no violence? Not for a long time, of course. But, what if the number of U.S. hostile fire fatalities drops into the twenties or tens? Is the Democratic leadership willing to accept that or will they still demand disengagement?
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