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Baghdad residents enjoy lull in violence

Residents of Baghdad packed the capital's parks and amusement rides on Saturday, taking advantage of a lull in violence and the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha to venture out of their homes in droves.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Residents of Baghdad packed the capital's parks and amusement rides on Saturday, taking advantage of a lull in violence and the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha to venture out of their homes in droves.

While there have been far fewer attacks across the country in recent months, violence has by no means been eradicated.

A suicide car bomb exploded at a checkpoint manned by Iraqi army and police in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliyah Saturday afternoon, killing four people and wounding another six, a police officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to release information.

The dead were two civilians, a policeman and a soldier, while the wounded included two policemen and two soldiers, police said.

On the southern outskirts of the capital, a roadside bomb wounded five bystanders near a hospital in the town of Madin, police said. It was unclear what the target was. In Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, another roadside bomb targeting a passing police patrol killed one policeman and wounded two others, local police said.

Sunni militias help
While attacks continue, overall violence has dropped significantly in recent months after the United States sent thousands of troops to the capital. The improving security has been reinforced by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to declare a six-month cease-fire and by the emergence of mostly Sunni tribal militias.

Those groups, known as Awakening Councils or Concerned Local Citizens, have given U.S. and Iraqi forces a key advantage in seeking to clear extremist-held pockets in and around Baghdad.

"I wish peace and prosperity to our beloved country Iraq and hope all our brothers, sons and families who live abroad come back and God willing, during the next Eid all Iraqis will come together and peace, security and brotherhood will prevail," Abdul Jabbar Kadhim, an employee at the Dora oil refinery, told AP Television News as he played with his children in a riverside park.

Kadhim and hundreds of others took advantage of the reduced violence and of the brisk sunny day to picnic along the Tigris river. But unlike other parks around the world, people and cars were searched before entering, and some park visitors said that added security gave them the confidence to visit.

Civilian deaths way down
This month, the U.S. military has reported a 60 percent decline in violence since June. According to figures compiled by The Associated Press, fewer than 600 Iraqi civilians and security forces have been killed so far in December. The figure was 2,309 in December 2006.

In the years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, attacks against civilians in Baghdad led thousands to flee the capital, mostly for neighboring countries. Many of those who remained huddled in their homes and neighborhoods, often behind large cement walls.

Many feared the suicide bombers who killed thousands by driving or walking into large crowds or restaurants, drive-by shooters and kidnap gangs that often rounded up more than 100 people at a time. Many of the city's neighborhoods had a deserted feel to them and others were redrawn along sectarian lines.

But the volunteer groups that have helped bring a measure of safety are also demanding jobs with the Iraqi security forces.

The Shiite-led government has been slow to respond, despite Washington's fears that the tribal support could collapse into chaos without swift integration into the existing forces.

Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman, said more than 71,000 Iraqis have joined the irregular militia groups. An estimated 21,000 are interested in serving in the Iraqi security forces, he added. Iraq's government has said it will pay to provide vocational training for the rest.