BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Naser Abdul-Ameer watched his four sons kick a soccer ball around the popular al-Zahra park in Baghdad’s predominantly Sunni Arab western Karkh area. It’s a trip they make weekly. A year ago it was unimaginable.
“It would have been like committing suicide,” said the 45-year-old Finance Ministry employee from across the Tigris in the sprawling Shi’ite slum district of Sadr City in Baghdad’s northeast.
Though far from stable, Baghdad’s streets are inching back to normal a year after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched Operation Imposing Law, as Baghdad’s death toll from sectarian violence and insurgency was spiraling out of control.
A precursor to U.S. President George W. Bush’s “surge” of 30,000 extra troops to Iraq, the operation is slowly changing the city.
Lovers stroll along the banks of the Tigris River, families play in amusement parks and it’s standing-room only in some university lecture halls.
Streets are clogged with traffic and even some new car sales rooms report a brisk trade, all unthinkable a year ago.
“Before the security plan, I held my breath every time I left my house, expecting a bomb,” said Abdul-Ameer.
The confidence is fragile, easily shattered. Last Friday, 99 people at two popular pet markets were killed by two female bombers.
U.S. military and Iraqi security officials said the women were mentally impaired and had been women duped by al Qaeda.
“A year into the security plan, with billions of dollars of funding, and the result is dozens of innocent people die in a couple of minutes,” said a man who gave his name as Basim, and whose brother was badly wounded in one of the attacks.
While offering sympathy to victims’ families, the U.S. urged Iraqis not to give up hard-won security gains.
“The continued use by al Qaeda of Iraq’s most innocent ... shows the broken ideology, the desperation and the depths al Qaeda will go to attempt to destroy the bright future of Iraq,” U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said.
Operation Imposing Law was the vanguard of a new strategy in Iraq, with five additional U.S. brigades joining thousands of extra Iraqi soldiers and police to retake Baghdad’s streets.
With commanders focusing on new counter-insurgency tactics, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers set up “joint security stations” or command outposts, moving American troops out of large bases so they live in the neighborhoods they patrol.
Smith said overall attacks in Baghdad looked set to have fallen 60 percent since the operation was launched, with civilian deaths down more than 55 percent.
“Ethno-sectarian” deaths — targeted killings by Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs — are down more than 80 percent, he said.
Whatever the figures, Ahmed Fakhri, who runs a women’s clothing shop in western Baghdad’s upscale Mansour district, has seen a difference: “Now at least we don’t see dumped bodies in the streets every time we go to work,” he said.
Smith’s Baghdad figures match broader national trends, with attacks across Iraq down by 60 percent since last June, when the extra 30,000 U.S. troops became fully deployed.
Those reinforcements, the growing use of mainly Sunni Arab neighborhood police patrols and the new counter-insurgency strategies adopted by General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, are all credited for the falls in violence.
The security gains have allowed the U.S. military to start withdrawing troops. By July, U.S. force levels will have dropped by five brigades, bringing numbers to roughly 130,000, or the same as before the additional deployments began in early 2007.
But analysts have warned against any hasty drawdown.
“The new situation is still a long way from stable or secure,” Stephen Biddle, an Iraq expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the U.S. Congress late last month.
“Today’s conditions offer a much stronger possibility for a stable Iraq than has been available for a long time — if the United States resists the temptation to draw down sooner or deeper than necessary,” he said.
Many people complain improved security have not been followed by the restoration of essential services — electricity and water supplies are still fitful at best across the capital.
“Workers refused to clean areas in western Baghdad because so many got killed by drive-by shootings or bombs planted under garbage,” said Baghdadi Ali al-Khafaji.
Tahseen Sheikhly, an Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said workers in essential services had to overcome a barrier of fear. “Delivering services is a process connected with security. It takes time,” he said.
Others argue that dirty streets are a small price to pay.
Abu Ameer, an unshaven man pushing a wooden cart selling fish through central Baghdad’s Karrada district, remembered the day his 7-year-old son came home and said men had stopped him and asked if his father was a Shi’ite or a Sunni Muslim.
They were living at the time in Abu Ghraib, once a notorious Sunni Arab militant stronghold in west Baghdad.
“It took only a couple of days to get my stuff together and we fled,” he said. “I lost my job, my house, all my property, but all that is nothing compared to enjoying a peaceful life.”
Writing by Paul Tait; Editing by Sara Ledwith