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 one of the centers of al-Qaida in Iraq operations. The district in western Baghdad was hit by more than a dozen bombings and shootings some days. Few people dared to venture onto the streets.
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. But the speed of the turnaround in places such as Amariyah has taken almost everyone — including U.S. military forces in the area — by surprise.
"The progress that we made is almost unbelievable," said Capt. Brendan Gallagher, 29, of Columbia, Md., who serves with the Army's 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
The neighborhood is still nowhere near its former gloss at 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 with broken windows and the streets are littered with trash. There is 70 percent unemployment, U.S. military officials say.
But residents are making the first small steps toward trying to rebuild.
Ismail Hussein mixed cement across the street from a line of shops blown up by the U.S. military after a huge cache of arms, ammunition and explosives were discovered there in late summer.
Hussein greeted a passing U.S. military patrol as he rebuilt a curb in front of a relative's home, shaping the fresh concrete with a trowel. A few months ago, he might have been shot by insurgents for this modest effort, as they tried to discourage anything that smacked of reconstruction.
Now the violence has ebbed to the point that U.S. forces — in the absence of much help from Iraq's Shiite-dominated central government — have begun planning to rebuild.
Water mains have been ruptured or cracked by bombs and the passing U.S. tanks and 25-ton Bradley armored vehicles. Sewers are clogged with refuse and, Capt. Gallagher said, some human remains.
Sunni residents are afraid still to go to the area hospital, run by Shiites, complaining of poor treatment and the fear of Shiite death squads. So the U.S. military authorities plan to build a health center using a building designated for dental offices by the regime of Saddam Hussein.
U.S. officials say it's impossible to understand how far the situation improved in Amariyah without explaining how far it deteriorated.
"Amariyah was one of the first places where things got real bad," said 1st Lt. Schulyer Williamson, 24, of Pensacola, Fla., part of Gallagher's unit. "My platoon sergeant and I would pick up six dead bodies a day."
Once, Williamson said, he was ambushed by snipers stationed in 12 positions along a stretch of road, trying to force the column to a choke point where insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades lurked.
"It rained," he said, describing the intensity of the shooting. "I grabbed my gunner out of the gunner's hole because he was taking too much fire." They managed to escape.
The violence peaked in May, U.S. officials said, as al-Qaida in Iraq fighters killed 14 U.S. military troops in a series of bombings. Six soldiers and their interpreter died May 19 when a massive bomb detonated in the road under their Bradley, flipping it over.
Several U.S. military officials here 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 say, was the formation in late May of a local anti-insurgent alliance, the Farsan al-Rafidayn, which in Arabic means "Knights of the Land of the Two Rivers."
The organization, called the FAR by the U.S. military, has recruited hundreds of Amariyah residents to fight against al-Qaida in Iraq — which takes inspiration from Osama bin Laden, though its direct links to his terror network are unclear. Similar groups have been formed across former insurgent strongholds in other parts of Iraq.
The FAR "Knights" are led by Abu Abed, the nom de guerre of a 40-year-old Amariyah resident who says he served as an officer in the Iraqi Army for 17 years before 2003, but otherwise is reluctant to talk about his background.
He has told friends in the U.S. military that he is the sole survivor of seven brothers, four of them victims of the sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent years.
Abu Abed started the revolt in Amariyah, he and U.S. military officials say, by confronting an al-Qaida in Iraq leader in one of Amariyah's main shopping districts. Abed told The Associated Press that the leader — known by the nickname "the white lion" — pointed a pistol at Abed and pulled the trigger, twice. Twice, the gun misfired.
The cigar-smoking commander said he wrestled the gun away from his adversary and shot him dead.
FAR has been so successful in disrupting operations of the terror group that al-Qaida in Iraq has put a $500,000 bounty on Abed's head, U.S. military officials say.
U.S. military leaders are currently paying FAR the equivalent of a $300 monthly salary for about 260 of its members to provide security. FAR has received permission to distribute the total grant among more than double that number of its members, the military says.
American officials and Abed, a Sunni, are also pushing to get FAR integrated into the Iraqi security services. But Abed said he was discouraged by recent conversations with a representative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"She asked me how many Sunnis you have, how many Shiites," he said. "That's close to sectarianism."
Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, has said that at least two members of FAR were former allies of al-Qaida. Others, he has said, were part of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Tawhid and Jihad — all Sunni insurgent groups responsible for past attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Asked about this, Abed said that "not all" members of his group were former insurgents.
But Kuehl, 41, from Huntsville, Ala., and other military officials here argued that any successful counterinsurgency requires recruiting supporters from the ranks of former adversaries. Several U.S. military officers here said there had been no suspected insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Amariyah since early August.
"I can live with that, I think," Williamson said.
At least in part, the FAR rebellion came in reaction to the brutal punishment the al-Qaida fighters meted out for violations of their strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Militants cut off the thumb and forefingers of people who smoked, Abed and U.S. military officials said, allegedly raped and killed two women for wearing short skirts and slaughtered hairdressers who gave their clients Western-style haircuts.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil told reporters Tuesday that violence in many parts of Iraq began to decline in June and has "continued to come down steadily since then."
He offered several factors for the reduction in bloodshed. "Perhaps even most significantly, the Iraqi people have just decided they've had it up to here with violence," he said.
He said all but 12 to 13 percent of Baghdad is under control by the U.S. military and other security forces, and that there is no part of the city where the U.S. can't operate.
"But I also will say, Baghdad's a dangerous place," he said. "And al-Qaida, while on the ropes, is not finished by any means. And they could come back swinging if they're allowed to."