For most of last year, a boulevard called Haifa Street in western Baghdad was the scene of daily street battles between U.S. and Iraqi forces and insurgents. The vicious fighting turned the six-kilometer stretch into a long, bloody nightmare for soldiers and residents alike. But the area has become a shining example of how a disciplined and a determined Iraqi force can defeat the insurgents and restore stability.
Haifa Street resident Awatif Saleh and her six children shudder at the memory of what life was like for them just a few months ago.
Their cramped, windowless, one-room apartment faces Taliah Square, a wide traffic junction that insurgents routinely used as a spot to set off car bombs and to launch attacks against passing U.S. and Iraqi military patrols.
The attacks prompted ferocious counter-attacks, placing the 40-year-old widow's home in the middle of raging street battles.
"Until a few months ago, it was too dangerous for my family and I to even leave the front door open, let alone leave the house," Ms. Saleh says. She points to the pockmarked façade of her apartment building, where stray bullets have dug deep holes into the walls. Near her front door, a mortar has gouged out a large crater in the concrete floor.
Even on days when there was a lull in the fighting, Ms. Saleh says she still could not venture outside. To intimidate residents, insurgents frequently executed people on the road in broad daylight, confident that no one would dare try to stop them or report their activities.
The out-of-control violence prompted U.S. and Iraqi officials to dub Haifa Street "little Fallujah," a reference to the city west of Baghdad, which Iraqi extremists and foreign fighters used as a base of operations until late last year, when they were driven out by U.S. troops.
But unlike the city of Fallujah, wresting Haifa Street away from the insurgents has been very much an Iraqi achievement.
Iraqi Army soldier Wassam Hassan says things began changing about three months ago when his American-trained unit, the First Battalion of the First Brigade, conducted a successful raid and captured several men who had been behind much of the violence.
Then, defying insurgent threats, his unit began to take back the boulevard, block by block. U.S. troops helped in the so-called "cordon and search" operations. But Corporal Hassan says it was his unit that planned the missions and executed them.
"There was no such thing as a front line here. Every square meter of the street was a front line of battle," Corporal Hassan says. He says he and the other soldiers fought hard day and night to prove to the residents that it would be Iraqi army soldiers who would get rid of terrorists from Haifa Street, not the Americans.
The commander of the Iraqi Army's First Brigade, Brigadier General Jalil, says residents here have been responding positively to their efforts, giving his soldiers more tips and a lot more trust.
The Iraqis feel happy and more secure when they see Iraqi Army soldiers patrolling instead of Americans, General Jalil says. He says he is grateful to the U.S. military for their help, but he now believes his unit has the confidence and the experience to perform entirely on their own.
General Jalil's statement is a far cry from reports in other parts of the country of frightened Iraqi soldiers and police fleeing their posts when attacked by insurgents. Iraqi security forces have also suffered from infiltration and intimidation by insurgents. The incidents have cast doubts on whether the Iraqis could successfully tackle the insurgency without the support of U.S. forces.
U.S. officials have said that building a robust Iraqi security force is the only way to send many of the 139,000 American troops back home.
American military advisor Army Sergeant First Class Larry Morgan has been embedded with First Brigade soldiers for several months, training and helping them manage their patrols. He says what makes these Iraqi soldiers a model for others is their exceptional discipline and their desire to win the hearts of the local people.
"The people here really respect the new army. They are doing a lot of stuff for the public. They drop off goods. They bring toys and food for the kids. And I think that is why they tell us who is in the area so that we can get them out of here. It is good to be able to train and they wanting to learn. It makes us feel real good," he said.
On Haifa Street, the once-deserted Taliah Square is again bustling with car and pedestrian traffic.
From her apartment, Awatif Saleh watches as Iraqi soldiers and uniformed policemen move briskly about the street, unafraid and brimming with confidence.
Ms. Saleh says, smiling, "I am so proud of them. You can see that they have the situation here under control". She quickly adds, "God willing, they will be able to get control over the rest of the country".