- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2008

— Recent U.S. military success in quelling extremist violence in Baghdad has helped change the way American troops do business in the Iraqi capital.

Troops who once kicked in doors during searches in questionable neighborhoods now knock and ask permission to enter during operations to ferret out terrorists and their weapons.

Military convoys that pushed aside civilian traffic to reach their destinations are less aggressive and bullying in maneuvering through Baghdad´s traffic-jammed streets as the number of improvised explosive devices decreases.

Civil-affairs efforts - from helping refurbish schools to funding business development to improving neighborhood sewerage services - have moved from the back seat to the front.

U.S. officials say the focus has shifted from killing or capturing the enemy to winning the hearts and minds of the people upon whom the enemy has depended.

“The situation has certainly changed,” said Maj. Geoff Greene, executive officer of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment. “I think a lot of soldiers are bored, I really do; [but] some are happy there´s not a lot of kinetic operations going on, and some are happy they get to go out and talk to people on the street and see that we´re making things better for them.”

No one is calling conditions normal. So-called special groups - offshoots of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr´s Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) army - remain a “long-term threat to the security of Iraq and its people,” according to a recent assessment by the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, in charge of the Baghdad area. Gunmen in northeastern Baghdad are keeping a lower profile at present but are “still not adhering” to a May cease-fire between Mr. al-Sadr and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the assessment said.

Higher-level JAM militiamen and special group gunmen reportedly have fled to Iran and other countries, according to 4th Infantry Division officers, but they may well attempt to return.

Al Qaeda in Iraq, although seriously degraded, can’t be written off, either.

“Their attack levels show they don´t have the capability they once had,” said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff of the 4th Infantry Division. “Are we concerned about them coming back? We are always concerned about terrorist [activity] or individuals who want to do bad things in Baghdad.”

Al Qaeda is suspected of responsibility for several recent bombing incidents, including one by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest on Sunday in Adhamiya, a predominantly Sunni Arab district in northeastern Baghdad. Fifteen people were killed, including the head of a Sons of Iraq neighborhood watch group.

Al Qaeda has carried out regular attacks against these so-called “Awakening” groups, which are supported by the U.S. military to fight extremists.

The surge strategy of Gen. David H. Petraeus, which put more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops on Baghdad streets, helped give rise to the Awakening groups.

With extra U.S. troops and local Iraqis willing to fight terrorists, neighborhoods could be cleared of extremists and protected against their return.

Attacks of all kinds in the Baghdad area in July fell to 95 compared with 740 in April and 1,150 in July 2007, according to the 4th Infantry Division.

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