12:00 AM CST on Thursday, November 8, 2007
BAGHDAD – Twilight brings traffic jams to the main shopping district of this once-affluent corner of Baghdad, and hundreds of people stroll past well-stocked vegetable stands, bakeries and butcher shops.
To many in Amariyah, it seems little short of a miracle.
Just six months ago, this mostly Sunni neighborhood was a base of operations for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The district in western Baghdad was hit by more than a dozen bombings and shootings some days.
On Tuesday, women shopped and men drank tea in sidewalk cafes. Occasionally, U.S. soldiers walking the streets were greeted with salaams and smiles.
What is happening here reflects similar trends across Baghdad and parts of Iraq, where civilian and U.S. military casualties have dropped sharply in the past two months. Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil said Tuesday that all but 12 to 13 percent of Baghdad is under control by the U.S. military and other security forces.
But the speed of the turnaround in Amariyah has taken almost everyone by surprise.
"The progress that we made is almost unbelievable," said Capt. Brendan Gallagher, 29, of Columbia, Md., with the Army's 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
The neighborhood is still nowhere near its former gloss as the Beverly Hills of Baghdad, as it was called before the 2003 U.S. invasion. A six-foot-high concrete wall rings the two-square-mile neighborhood, many villas stand empty, and the streets are littered with trash. There is 70 percent unemployment, military officials say.
But residents are making the first small steps to rebuilding.
"Amariyah was one of the first places where things got real bad," said 1st Lt. Schulyer Williamson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., part of Capt. Gallagher's unit. "My platoon sergeant and I would pick up six dead bodies a day."
The violence peaked in May, U.S. officials said, as al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters killed 14 U.S. military troops in a series of bombings.
Several U.S. military officials said the most important factor in reducing the violence in Amariyah was the U.S. troop increase, which quadrupled the number of U.S. military forces patrolling the neighborhood in mid-June.
Another key to progress, they said, was the formation in late May of a local anti-insurgent alliance, the Farsan al-Rafidayn, which means "Knights of the Land of the Two Rivers."