Baghdad residents see signs of easing violence in region

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BAGHDAD (AP) – Shop owners long afraid of Baghdad’s bombings and shootings are keeping their stores open later these days on the main street of Jadidah district, saying they feel safer after weeks of a beefed-up U.S. security crackdown.

It is one sign that many Iraqis sense violence is easing somewhat in Baghdad as U.S. forces fight to put down militants in the capital and areas on the city’s doorstep to the north and south.

But Iraqis are not putting much faith in the lull – attacks still hit some districts, fear of kidnapping remains widespread, and everyone remembers past periods of calm that ended with new bursts of bloodshed.

Even where residents feel safer, security is a fragile, day-to-day thing.

Mohammed Naim, a Sunni Muslim spare parts store owner, said his neighborhood of Abu Dshir – in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous areas on its southern reaches – has grown calmer. “Even the sectarian killings have gone down,” he said Thursday.

Hours after he spoke, a car bomb ripped through a wedding party gathered outside a photographer’s shop in Abu Dshir, killing 17 people and wounding 28 others, including the bride and groom getting their pictures taken inside. Torn and charred bodies of women and children were left among pools of blood and burning cars in the mainly Shiite district.

But Baghdadis’ sense of lessening violence may come from a decrease of such major vehicle bombs, which wreak scenes of devastation in public areas like markets – even though shootings and smaller roadside bomb attacks continue.

Some Iraqis credit it to the U.S. security increase, which began in February and culminated with major new offensives launched in mid-June after the full contingent of additional American troops deployed.

The death toll among civilians does not appear to have immediately fallen since the offensives began. From June 20 to Thursday, 472 civilians died in attacks in Baghdad, a dip of 2 percent from the previous 16-day period, according to a tally collected by the Associated Press from daily reports by Iraqi security and hospital officials.

But civilian deaths from car bombings fell 17 percent to 96 between the two periods – and all but nine of those deaths were in a single blast at a Shiite mosque on June 20 – suggesting the number of such major attacks has dropped. The number of bodies found dumped in the streets – victims of sectarian militias – decreased 11 percent to 279.

On Friday – a day when a curfew is imposed for several hours around noon Muslim prayers – authorities reported the killings of 10 civilians – seven of them in a single mortar attack on a home. Police found five bodies dumped in parts of the city. Both numbers are down from the frequent double-digit daily tolls.

Violence has continued outside the capital, particularly in Diyala where the U.S. troops are waging their offensives. Friday evening, a suicide car bomber hit a cafe in the tiny Kurdish village of Ahmed Marif near the Iranian border in Diyala, killing 26 people and wounding 33, said an official in the province’s police joint coordination center. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The Baghdad figures don’t give a full picture of the capital’s death toll since some casualties are not reported to the police. Interior Ministry figures released earlier this week say civilian deaths in June were down 36 percent from May.

Some say they feel the difference, particularly compared to several months ago when more than 100 people a day were regularly killed.

“The improvement is obvious,” said Hani Mowafaq, 40, who owns a shop in eastern Baghdad’s mainly Shiite Jadidah district. The streets there used to shut down at 3 p.m. as storeowners rushed to get home before dark. “Now I can stay open until nine and feel secure,” he said, crediting increased U.S. and Iraqi patrols.

Hassan Nassar, an art gallery owner, said he was stunned to see how many people were out recently on the central shopping strip of Palestine Street. “If it weren’t for the barbed wire and blast walls, it would have looked just like the natural old days,” he said.

The U.S. military, which doesn’t release civilian casualty figures, is reluctant to claim success yet, wary of raising expectations as it has in the past by taking credit for drops in violence, only to see them end. “It’s too early to declare a trend,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said this week of reported reductions in deaths.

But greater quiet is the goal. The Bush administration is gambling that its “surge” of 28,000 additional troops can impose enough calm on the capital that Iraqis will begin to feel greater faith in their fragile government.

Troops in the capital have been going neighborhood to neighborhood, seeking to seize control. Other U.S. forces are waging parallel offensives to the north, in the city of Baqouba, and to the south, around Salman Pak, to uproot insurgents from areas they use as staging grounds for attacks in Baghdad.

The gains they have made may not hold over the long-term. U.S. commanders say there are not enough Iraqi security forces to ensure insurgents don’t return after the Americans pull back. The parallel political track of passing new laws to encourage Sunnis to stop supporting the insurgency and back the government has been held up by wrangling between Iraq’s politicians for months.

Iraqis are keenly aware that a failure of political progress could bring the security situation crashing back down.

“Yes, there’s a reduction in the attacks, but this isn’t a sure sign. The causes of disagreement are still there,” said Abdul-Karim Ahmed, a technician at the Dora refinery in south Baghdad, whose extended family – like hundreds of thousands of Iraqis – have fled abroad.

On Friday, a bomb severely damaged the main pipeline to the refinery, which is already producing at 50 percent of capacity because of constant sabotage. That means gas shortages and electricity outages for Baghdad residents, to add daily miseries to the fear of violence.

Some districts remain intensely dangerous, particularly those where Sunnis and Shiites remain close by. In his western Baghdad neighborhood of Hutteen, Amir Mohammed Ali said the number of dead bodies dumped in the streets has only grown. On Wednesday, gunmen sprayed shops with automatic weapons fire, killing several people, he said.

“The owners opened their shops seeing the increased number of checkpoints, thinking it would protect them, but it just didn’t happen,” said the 50-year-old Sunni.

Even in safer neighborhoods, a single drive-by shooting or roadside bomb can revive residents’ fears. Moreover, the worry over kidnapping – by sectarian militias or just common criminals – has not lifted.

“It’s not the bombing we fear because you die immediately,” said Mohammed al-Adhami, a real estate agent. “But if I’m kidnapped, I’ll be tortured. They will break my bones with iron bars and drill holes in my body.”

Suhad Ibrahim, a Shiite schoolteacher, says she feels safe enough to take her children shopping in the Shiite district of Kazimiyah, across town from her home. But she doesn’t dare bring her Sunni husband along for fear he will be targeted.

“We’ve started feeling more secure,” she said. “But these areas are not yet secure enough” for him.

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