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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Violence in the central Baghdad area that Lieutenant-Colonel Craig Collier oversees has fallen sharply over the past year, but the wiry U.S. squadron commander cannot afford to be complacent.
Last month, a unit of soldiers that patrolled a sizable chunk of the Iraqi capital adjacent to Collier's zone became one of the first to return home as part of the unwinding of President George W. Bush's troop "surge."
Collier has taken on responsibility for the departed unit's area and must now maintain security in a vast 20 sq.km. (8 sq.mile) swathe of Baghdad, from the Tigris River to the violent Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, with half the force that was there only a few months ago.
"It is a test of sorts," Collier, 44, said. "After the first surge unit left, my squadron assumed their area and now controls an area twice the size with less than half the soldiers."
The arrival of 20,000 extra U.S. troops last year under the "surge" helped cut violence in Baghdad. But now, as those troops leave, officers like Collier must find a way to ensure the security gains do not vanish as quickly as they came.
The challenge is formidable.
Fighting continues to rage in anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, which runs along the eastern edge of Collier's area of operations. On Saturday, the Shi'ite cleric threatened Iraqi and U.S. forces with all-out war.
At the same time, the threat from al Qaeda militants, driven from the capital last year, seems to be rising again. The U.S. military said last week it had intelligence showing al Qaeda was slipping back into Baghdad to carry out a new wave of attacks.
On a recent patrol in Collier's central Baghdad zone -- an area with a population of 435,000, larger than Miami, Florida -- soldiers from Alpha troop walked assuredly through Fadhil, a largely-Sunni district in an area surrounded by Shi'ites.
Children, shouting "hey mistah," swarmed around them and residents leaned out of doors to get a glimpse of the heavily armed soldiers trudging through their historic narrow streets.
A year ago, Sunni Islamist al Qaeda roamed these alleys, carrying out bloody attacks and fuelling sectarian violence.
Today, U.S. troops, American-backed neighborhood security units called "Sons of Iraq," and Iraqi army and police control the neighborhood, whose bullet-ridden facades are a haunting reminder of the violence seen in 2006 and early 2007.
Violent acts have dropped from close to 50 a month in the first half of 2007 to under 30, with murders and direct attacks down sharply, according to data supplied by the U.S. military.
Since Alpha troop arrived from Fort Polk, Louisiana in December, they have had only one "contact" with the enemy -- a March 27 shootout in Fadhil with a lone AK-47 wielding gunman that left no casualties.
"It's been remarkably quiet," says Captain Nathan Hubbard, 31, who is on his third tour in Iraq and oversees the northwest section of Collier's zone.
Hubbard says it will be a challenge keeping rivalries between Iraqi army members and the "Sons of Iraq" under control.
But he is sanguine about the ability of his soldiers to maintain security in their area, even if they have to do so with a "much smaller presence" and rely more on Iraqi counterparts.
"I think the surge enabled the Iraqi forces to re-establish themselves, to get some training, to get to know the local people," he said. "The reduction in U.S. troops will force the Iraqi army and the Sons of Iraq to step up."
Are the Iraqis ready? The signs have been mixed.
The Iraqi government fired 1,300 soldiers and police for refusing to fight last month when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cracked down on Sadr's militia in the southern city of Basra.
In the cleric's Sadr City bastion, a company of Iraqi troops abandoned their post last Tuesday after an assault by Sadr's black-masked Mehdi Army. For the most part, however, the U.S. military says the Iraqis have stood their ground in Baghdad.
Time is clearly running out on the government to prove it can handle security in the capital without robust U.S. backing.
The chief of staff of the U.S. military in Baghdad, Colonel Allen Batschelet, told Reuters last week that he expected Iraqi security forces to attain a level of "sustainable security" in much of the capital by the early spring of 2009.
That would allow U.S. forces to adopt a "tactical overwatch" role, he said, in which they stop daily patrols but keep rapid response forces on hand to intervene in emergencies.
Washington has close to 160,000 troops in Iraq, a figure that will drop to 140,000 by July, when the withdrawal of five of 20 U.S. combat brigades is complete.
With a U.S. presidential election campaign in full swing, a debate is raging in the United States over how fast American troops can and should be withdrawn after the summer.
Republican candidate John McCain refuses to set a timetable, but both Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, say they want troops out as soon as possible.
How Colonel Collier's soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts cope with the new reality in central Baghdad will go a long way to clarifying which of these visions is wiser.
"I think we'll only begin to see the real impact of these withdrawals in a few more months," said 2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Kommor, an Alpha troop member from West Virginia.
Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia