Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said 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 US general 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-Qaeda-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 on Sunday at his office in the US-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 US 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. US troops have set up small outposts in some of the capital's most dangerous enclaves. Locals previously lukewarm to the presence of US 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.
Associated Press figures show a sharp drop in the number of US and Iraqi deaths across the country in the past few months. The number of Iraqis who met violent deaths dropped from at least 1,023 in September to at least 905 last month.
The number of US military deaths fell from 65 to at least 39 over the same period.
Major General Rick Lynch, commander of US forces south of the capital, said on 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.
He attributed the sharp drop in attacks to the US troop buildup, the setup of small outposts at the heart of Iraqi communities and help from locals fed up with al-Qaeda and other extremists.
"These people -- Sunni and Shiite -- are saying, `I've had enough,'" Lynch said.
The US 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 US state of West Virginia.
Some 17,000 of those people, whom the US military calls "concerned local citizens," are paid US$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.
Such local expertise has paid off for US troops and their Iraqi counterparts, who have killed or captured about 3,000 insurgents in the area in the past year, Lynch said.