Grounds for Optimism?

Capt. Hussein and the soldiers of the Iraqi Army's 302nd Battalion pick their way down a narrow, trash-filled alleyway in the slums behind Baghdad's Haifa Street. It's a pro-government Shia neighborhood plastered with posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the locals wave and smile as the troops pass through. But the atmosphere changes as the unit crosses into a predominantly Sunni neighborhood. Streets empty, mothers snatch toddlers up off doorsteps and merchants slam down the steel shutters of their shops. The uneasy silence is punctured by the sharp explosion of a grenade, tossed over a wall by insurgents. "They're scared," says Capt. Hussein, referring to the invisible assailants. "Six months ago they would fight, and sometimes win. Now they just throw, and run."

Bringing order to Haifa Street is the sharp end of Iraq's two-year-old battle against insurgents. But since last month, new Iraq Army and police units, not Americans, have been controlling Baghdad's meanest streets. More, they seem to be winning. Just last Thursday, 19 Iraqis died in a pair of car bombings near the Interior Ministry. But insurgent attacks across the whole of Iraq are down to 20 to 30 a day from 50 to 60 before January's elections. Crucially, Iraqi forces are launching more and more of their own operations against insurgents, last week detaining nearly 70 in raids around Baghdad and other cities. "Peace hasn't broken out yet," says Lt. Col. Thomas McDonald of the 1st Battalion 9th Cavalry, who spent much of the past year training the Iraqi units patrolling Haifa Street. "But they're more than holding their own."

Iraqis providing security for Iraqis is key to the U.S. exit strategy. Iraq's first postwar elected government, whose full cabinet is due to be announced this week, must be able to maintain law and order. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Baghdad for a flying visit, boasted last week that Iraqi security forces had officially overtaken the number of Coalition troops stationed in Iraq. Now, says one senior American diplomat, the trick is to ensure that those forces are forged into "a force for unity, not division."

One major problem is that the Iraqi security forces are dominated by Shiites and Kurds--the same groups who came out on top in January's elections. Those few Sunnis who have been persuaded to join up are mostly former officers from Saddam Hussein's day, and there has been pressure from the Shiite-dominated National Assembly to purge former Baathists from the armed forces. Rumsfeld warned the fledgling government against such a step, arguing that it would wreak havoc with fragile, newly formed units and reinforce Sunni suspicions that the Iraqi Army is a Shia force fighting for a Shia government. "Many of my former officers are suspicious," says Lt. Col. Alla Talib Mohsine, a Saddam-era officer who's the second-in-command of the 302nd. "But now that we have started working independently we are winning more respect."

Divisions within the insurgency itself seem to be working to the new Iraqi Army's advantage. "There's a debate going on," says a senior U.S. military official. Moderate members of the Association of Islamic Scholars, a Sunni group, last month issued a fatwa urging Sunnis to join the armed forces--insisting that attacks upon them were attacks upon the Iraqi people, rather than on foreign occupiers. Meanwhile, Iraq's newly appointed president, Jalal Talabani, called for an amnesty for insurgents who had killed combatants "in battle or in action," though not for those who murdered "innocent people, detonated car bombs or killed people in mosques and in churches." The aim: to encourage insurgents to lay down their arms and join in rebuilding Iraq. "You cannot overcome the insurgency by violence alone," says Sabah Kadhim, an adviser to Iraq's Interior minister.

Along Haifa Street, it's clear that what ordinary Iraqis want are the basics of good governance--security, sanitation, electricity. There's evidence, too, that even Sunnis are starting to lose patience with the insurgents and trust the Iraqi Army more. According to Lieutenant Colonel Mohsine, the number of tip-offs from locals about car bombs and roadside improvised explosive devices has risen from one a week before the election to several per day. Even more heartening, every week more and more of his men decide not to wear the face-covering ski masks adopted by many Iraqi Army troopers to hide their identity, for fear of reprisals. "We are becoming less afraid," he says.