Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Sunday suicide attacks and other bombings in the Iraqi capital have dropped dramatically since last year's high, calling it a sign of the end of sectarian violence. A top U.S. general here said he believes the drop is sustainable, as Iraqis turn away from extremists.
Al-Maliki said "terrorist acts" including car bombings and other spectacular, al-Qaida-style attacks dropped by 77 percent. He called it a sign that Sunni-Shiite violence was nearly gone from Baghdad.
"We are all realizing now that what Baghdad was seeing every day — dead bodies in the streets and morgues — is ebbing remarkably," al-Maliki told reporters at his office in the U.S.-guarded Green Zone.
"This is an indication that sectarianism intended as a gate of evil and fire in Iraq is now closed," he said.
Before the arrival of nearly 30,000 U.S. reinforcements this past spring, explosions shook Baghdad daily — sometimes hourly. The whiz of mortar and rocket fire crisscrossing the Tigris River was frequent. And the pop-pop of gunfire beat out a constant, somber rhythm of killing.
Now the sounds of warfare are rare. American troops have set up small outposts in some of the capital's most dangerous enclaves. Locals previously lukewarm to the presence of U.S. soldiers patrol alongside them. And a historic lane on the eastern banks of the Tigris is set to reopen later this year, lined with seafood restaurants and an art gallery.
Al-Maliki's assessment Sunday matched those of U.S. military officials, and is borne out by Associated Press figures that show a sharp drop in the number of U.S. and Iraqi deaths in the past few months. The number of Iraqi civilians who meet violent deaths dropped from at least 1,023 in September to at least 905 in October, according to an AP count.
The number of American military deaths fell from 65 to at least 39 over the same period.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. forces south of the capital, said Sunday he believed the decrease would hold, because of what he called a "groundswell" of support from regular Iraqis.
"If we didn't have so many people coming forward to help, I'd think this is a flash in the pan. But that's just not the case," Lynch told a small group of reporters over lunch in the Green Zone.
Troop surge credited
He attributed the sharp drop in attacks to the American troop buildup, the setup of small outposts at the heart of Iraqi communities, and help from locals fed up with al-Qaida and other extremists.
"These people — Sunni and Shiite — are saying, `I've had enough,'" Lynch said.
The U.S. military has recruited at least 26,000 Iraqis to help target militants in Lynch's area of operations, he said. The religiously mixed area, which includes suburbs of Baghdad and all of Karbala, Najaf and Wassit province along the Iranian border, is about the size of the U.S. state of West Virginia.
Some 17,000 of those people, whom the U.S. military calls "concerned local citizens," are paid $300 a month to man checkpoints and guard critical infrastructure in their hometowns, Lynch said.
"They live there, and they know who's the good guy and who's the bad guy," he said.
A boost to troops
Such local expertise has paid off for American troops and their Iraqi counterparts, who have killed or captured about 3,000 insurgents in the area in the past year, Lynch said.
Many of those who have not joined the U.S.-led fight against extremists have fled, al-Maliki said.
"The majority of these terrorists are fleeing to nearby countries, and I warned our brothers in the Islamic and Arab countries to be aware," he said.
The prime minister also said he was considering an amnesty for those "who were lured or committed some crimes," although he added that the move would not include those "convicted of killings or bombings."
In a sign the government is working toward reconciliation, 70 former members of Saddam Hussein's party were reinstated to their jobs after they joined the fight against al-Qaida in Anbar province, said Ali al-Lami, a senior official with the commission that considered their cases.
Al-Lami told the AP that the former Baath party members included 12 university professors, officers in the disbanded Iraqi army, former policemen and teachers.
Some violence continues
Despite security improvements, a trickle of violence continued Sunday, with at least 10 people were killed or found dead around the country. The toll included a 12-year-old girl in Baghdad's Baladiyat area, who was killed by a roadside bomb that aimed for an American convoy but missed its target, police said.
Also Sunday, the U.S. military said it had achieved "significant progress" in operations against al-Qaida in four northern provinces since American and Iraqi forces launched Operation Iron Hammer last week.
A U.S. statement said during the first week of the operation, U.S. and Iraqi forces had detained more than 200 suspected extremists, captured three "high value" al-Qaida operatives and seized more than a ton of various explosives.
American officers had predicted that al-Qaida and other extremists groups would try to regroup in the mostly Sunni north after they were driven from strongholds in Baghdad and Diyala province this year.