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Life Gets Better In Baghdad

Rocket and mortar attacks have fallen to their lowest level in nearly two years. Civilian deaths have dropped sharply since summer. Shoppers are venturing out, even in Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Iraq's capital is by no means yet safe. But the trend toward better security is indisputable.

In short, the traumatized residents of this sprawling city are experiencing their first sense of normalcy after years of bombings, kidnappings and wholesale slaughter. Iraqi officials are speaking optimistically about reopening streets and gradually lifting the nighttime curfew to encourage public confidence.

"The sound of an explosion has become a rare and extraordinary thing. Before it was normal," said Mohammed Mghamish, a 41-year-old father of six in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. "I am not worried like before."

The questions now: What caused the drop in violence? And how long can it last?

In one troubling sign, the security improvements have not been matched by any political agreements among Shiites and Sunnis. U.S. commanders are still hesitant to proclaim victory against Sunni and Shiite extremists in the city, and armed groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq, while bloodied, have not been destroyed.

Many people in Baghdad still fear venturing beyond their own neighborhoods. Others fear the influence of hardline religious parties that have gained power.

"Things are getting better, but for women the situation is the same," said Hiba Hussein, 30, a Sunni woman lawyer in northern Baghdad. "I was forced to wear a head scarf because of the Islamic attitudes on the street. Women have lost their freedom."

All that typifies the emerging picture in Iraq - a country that is less violent than a year ago, but still very far from the democratic ideal the United States once sought.

Still, today's calm is a far cry - and vast improvement - from the terror that gripped this city of 6 million people a year ago, as the country spiraled toward all-out sectarian civil war.

Then, armed bands of Shiite and Sunni gunmen roamed the streets, seizing people at illegal checkpoints and dumping their bodies by the dozens.

The sounds of car bombs, rocket and mortar fire reverberated through the streets. Iraqis, huddled in their homes, turning to Shiite militias and Sunni extremists to provide protection. Hundreds of thousands fled what amounted to ethnic cleansing.

Last December, 2,172 Iraqi civilians died violently, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press - most in Baghdad. But after a spike in June, violence in Baghdad began to ebb. In August, civilian deaths nationwide stood at 1,791, according to AP figures, and they fell to 878 in September and 750 in October.

As of Sunday, 189 civilians had died violently so far in November.

U.S. military deaths also are on the decline, although 2007 has been the deadliest year of the war for the U.S. military overall. After early spikes, deaths have fallen steadily from 101 in June to 65 in September and 39 in October. As of Monday, at least 16 U.S. service members have died so far this month.

In addition, the U.S. military says rocket and mortar attacks nationwide have fallen to their lowest level since February 2006. In Baghdad, such attacks rose from 139 in January to 224 in June - before falling to 53 last month.

"I think it has turned a corner," Gen. Richard Cody, vice chief of staff of the Army, told the AP on Monday. "These things take time, though ... We have to have patience ... Certainly the enemy has patience. We have to have patience."

The reasons for the violence drop are less clear.

U.S. commanders cite the surge of nearly 30,000 troops sent by President Bush earlier this year. They also cite a change in tactics, moving more troops out of large camps and into neighborhoods to keep extremists from returning.

"The surge gave us combat fire to reach out and touch the enemy," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. troops along Baghdad's southern rim. "We've denied the enemy those sanctuaries, and we couldn't have done that without the surge."

But the surge's success was also due to a revolt against al Qaeda by some Sunni Arabs - first in Anbar province and later in Baghdad. Fearing al Qaeda's brutal tactics, many fighters from rival insurgent groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq began cooperating with U.S. forces to drive the extremists from their neighborhoods and villages.

In addition, many Sunnis came to feel that Shiite religious parties posed a greater threat to their long-term Sunni interests than did U.S. forces. In part, that calculation was driven by harsh facts: Shiite militias drove tens of thousands of Sunnis from their homes last year, often with the tacit approval of Shiite-led government forces.

At the same time, Shiite attitudes toward the Mahdi Army began to change. Gunmen were seen less as protectors than as thugs, whose criminal activity drew U.S. attacks. That prompted the head of the biggest militia, Muqtada al-Sadr, to order a six-month stand down in August.

U.S. commanders were quick to exploit the changes, organizing about 70,000 Sunni fighters into neighborhood watch groups and then working to integrate them into government forces.

"Now the (ex-insurgents) are providing the security," said Amir Mohammed, 47, a Sunni merchant in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Amariyah. "Shops are open until late at night. The living standard of the people in the area is lifted."

Yet the Shiite-led government has been leery of bringing its former enemies into the police and army, fearing Sunnis could turn against it once U.S. forces have gone.

Suspicion between Sunnis and Shiites runs deep - and could take years, if ever, to end.

Ahmed Kamil, 40, a teacher from Azamiyah, once a Sunni insurgent stronghold, typifies such continued fears.

"The people of Azamiyah were held responsible for the sectarian killings committed by gunmen in their area," Kamil said. "That is why I don't feel safe when I leave my area - just because I come from Azamiyah."

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