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American casualties in Iraq dipped to their lowest point of the war in July, with 11 deaths — five attributed to hostile fire — reported for the month. The figure, almost unthinkable even six months ago, tracks with a drastic reduction in violence in the country.

But servicemembers and military leaders alike acknowledge that the gains are fragile. And, just as they said that high body counts earlier in the war were not indicative of success — or lack thereof — caution should be used when reading larger lessons from the fluctuating monthly figures.

"The progress is still reversible," President Bush said Thursday in Washington. But, he said, "there now appears to be a degree of durability in gains."

Soldiers around Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, say that enemy fighters are shifting their attacks from Americans to Iraqi security forces.

Throughout the country, small groups of Iraqi police, army and "Sons of Iraq" are more often manning vulnerable checkpoints on their own.

Those checkpoints, though, bolster the courage of Iraqi civilians in outlying areas who had previously been intimidated into attacking coalition forces by al-Qaida in Iraq. Enemy fighters also find it harder to move about the country than they did when forces were clustered together on large bases. In both Baghdad and Mosul, for example, the Americans have built dozens of combat outposts and joint security stations.

The Americans also have hired away many of the so-called "economic insurgents" who only planted roadside bombs because insurgent leaders paid them to do so. These men have less incentive to take insurgent money while they are receiving paychecks from programs such as the "Sons of Iraq," in which the military pays armed civilian groups.

However, the Americans are drawing down these programs, and alternatives have been slow to take their place.

Also, as coalition forces have cracked down on insurgents, enemy fighters have had to make do with lower-quality weapons. Insurgents in much of northern Iraq now rely on homemade explosives for their bombs.

Large quantities of homemade explosives are needed to cripple the military’s newest armored vehicles, and even more is needed to guarantee a kill. In Diyala, insurgents often use anti-tank mines scavenged from 1980s-era minefields. The insurgents lay the mines in twos and threes, and still many soldiers escape detonations without injury.

The same has been reported in other parts of Iraq, but larger factors also have been at play. Sunnis in Anbar have held to their allegiance against al-Qaida, and Shiite militias have largely stuck to a truce that has allowed Iraqi forces to move into areas like Sadr City.

There has been a steady decline in the number of roadside bombs and in "the movement of the enemy" in his sector over July, said Sgt. 1st Class Don Spock, a platoon leader with 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.

In the 12 months since 2-22 has been in Iraq, a series of events has had a cumulative effect that bore fruit in July in the form of security, not strife, Spock and other members of the unit said.

Better intelligence on local insurgents, reconciliations and three "Sons of Iraq" contracts in three key sectors boosted security by adding manpower for roadblocks and coverage against roadside bombs.

"I don’t believe they’re hard-core al-Qaida," Spock said of the tribes his unit is working to reconcile with the Iraqi government. "I believe they’re just people trying to put food on the table. If we can give them a good alternative [to terrorism or attacking U.S. troops], one which will help them feed their children and won’t get them killed or arrested, I think they’ll take it."

"Why, when they’ve seen that the grass is greener, would they go back to where it was dead?"

In Anbar, Marines say the security gains there have had a direct effect on U.S. actions and casualties.

Cpl. Jamal Hambrick, 22, from Chattanooga, Tenn., with a military transition team assigned to the 2nd Quick Reaction Force, 1st Iraqi Division, said of July’s having the lowest U.S. deaths since the war, "That’s really good. That’s extremely good. That means the Iraqi forces are starting to have more of an effect in the Anbar province."

Lance Cpl. Billy Cosper, 20, an infantryman from Pell City, Ala., said it is an indicator of the increased security of the region.

"It means the Iraq army and the Iraq police ... and the ‘Sons of Iraq’ are all doing their jobs. Everyone’s tired of the insurgency," Cosper said.

Stripes reporters Cindy Fisher and Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.

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