U.S. troops start to relax as Iraq security improves

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A few months ago, Lieutenant Greg Bassett…

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A few months ago, Lieutenant Greg Bassett and other U.S. soldiers would move through Abu Dsheer in a leapfrog pattern, half of them down in the dirt, rifles at the ready, protecting the rest as they ran.

Wednesday, Bassett and the other U.S. soldiers lounged in a schoolyard in this once violent community on the outskirts of Baghdad, watching residents slaughter four cows to mark the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, or feast of the Sacrifice.

Only a handful scanned nearby rooftops for snipers. Most had slung their rifles casually from their necks as they mingled easily with Iraqis who a short time ago were their foes.

“It’s pretty much a normal place right now,” said Bassett. “Hopefully it will stay that way.”

The violence that ravaged Iraq for years after the 2003 U.S. invasion appears in recent months to have started to evaporate, leaving behind a landscape scarred by towering concrete blast walls, roadblocks and barricades and the occasional ruin.

Al Qaeda and other insurgents continue to carry out car bomb and suicide attacks, killing dozens every month, and violence could escalate when Iraq holds provincial elections next month.

Security may also deteriorate when U.S. troops withdraw from Iraqi cities in June next year, ahead of a full withdrawal by end-2011, handing over to Iraqi police and soldiers as they go.

But for now the fall in incidents is allowing an air of normality to spread.

“As a matter of fact, there were no attacks at all inside Baghdad yesterday,” Major Dave Olson, a U.S. army public affairs officer, said. “It’s a rare day but it does happen.”

At the height of the insurgency and the sectarian conflict between majority Shi’ites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs in mid-2007, the district of Rasheed, in which Abu Sheer lies, witnessed 927 bomb attacks in one month, or around 31 per day.

This past November there were 24, Olson said.

The fall in violence is attributed to many things — a big increase in U.S. troops, a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn on their erstwhile al Qaeda allies and the declaration of a ceasefire by Shi’ite militias.

Some U.S. soldiers and Iraqi community leaders say a change in attitude by U.S. troops, and a focus on winning over local communities rather than fighting them, also played a role.

“These people need help,” said businessman Muayad Hamed, who donated the cows that were slaughtered for the residents of Abu Dsheer, and who has become a major contractor for the U.S. forces, renovating Iraqi schools and clinics.

Hamed said the U.S. forces wanted to come in and crush the anti-American rebels in Abu Dsheer with overwhelming force. He suggested instead that they employ them. Now 300 people in the community earn $10 a day cleaning streets and painting murals.

“It’s like a wheel. When it starts moving that’s it,” Hamed said. “All you have to do is prepare the road.”

While Hamed’s cows had their throats cut and were hacked to pieces on the concrete playground of the school, the U.S. soldiers attending the event watched or joked with children looking for gifts. Iraqi police called the shots.

Men and women lined up quietly in separate lines to receive a few pieces of beef in plastic bags. “Welcome, welcome,” several said in the few words of English they knew as they shuffled past Americans.

Men entering the school were searched by Iraqi police for weapons.

Outside, children’s playgrounds sprang up in open spaces filled for years with just rubble, dead dogs and trash. The paint on the iron frames of the suddenly erected swings and roundabouts was old and faded, but the cries of glee were fresh.

“It was not easy to be in the open (before). These are great changes,” said Hamed.

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