BAGHDAD Attacks by insurgents and rival sectarian militias have fallen up to 80 percent in Baghdad and concrete blast walls that divide the capital could soon be removed, a senior Iraqi military official said on Saturday.
Lieutenant-General Abboud Qanbar said the success of a year-long clampdown named "Operation Imposing Law" had reined in the savage violence between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs dominant under Saddam Hussein.
"In a time when you could hear nothing but explosions, gunfire and the screams of mothers and fathers and sons, and see bodies that were burned and dismembered, the people of Baghdad were awaiting Operation Imposing Law," Qanbar told reporters.
Qanbar pointed to the number of dead bodies turning up on the capital's streets as an indicator of success.
In the six weeks to the end of 2006, an average of 43 bodies were found dumped in the city each day as fierce sectarian fighting threatened to turn into full-scale civil war.
That figure fell to four a day in 2008, in the period up to February 12, said Qanbar, who heads the Baghdad security operation.
"Various enemy activities" had fallen by between 75 and 80 percent since the security plan was implemented, he said.
To demonstrate how life had improved, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki toured parts of the city on Saturday, visiting Iraqi forces and checkpoints.
"He wanted ... to send a message to the terrorists that security in Baghdad is prevailing now," one official said.
Central to the success has been the erection of 12-foot (3.5-meter) high concrete walls that snake across the city.
The walls were designed to stop car bombings blamed on al Qaeda that turned markets and open areas into killing fields.
Qanbar said he hoped the walls could be taken down "in the coming months" and predicted the improved situation in Baghdad would translate to greater security elsewhere.
The U.S. military says attacks have fallen across Iraq by 60 percent since June on the back of security clampdowns and the deployment of 30,000 extra American troops.
Vital to the fall in violence was also a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn against Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in late 2006 and form neighborhood security units, which man checkpoints and provide tips on militant hideouts.
However, their relationship with Iraqi authorities remains tense. The Shi'ite-led government is wary of the units, called "concerned local citizens" (CLCs) by the U.S. military and whose ranks includes former Sunni Arab insurgents.
"Everyone should know, that the official security forces represent the country. And it is the one side that has the right to bear arms and impose security," Qanbar said.
In a sign of the tensions, one CLC group said it was suspending its activities after three members were killed in an incident near the town of Jurf al-Sukr, south of Baghdad.
The unit blamed American soldiers for Friday's deaths. The U.S. military said attack helicopters had responded with rockets after security forces came under small-arms fire. It said the incident was under investigation but gave no further details.
The CLCs number some 80,000 mainly Sunni Arabs. Qanbar said Baghdad was working on compensating victims of mistakes by the Iraqi army and multi-national forces in Iraq.
While Iraqi and U.S. officials laud the security gains, humanitarian groups say it is still too early to encourage around 2 million refugees who fled Iraq to return home.
"The plight of Iraqi refugees will end with national reconciliation," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told reporters during a visit to Baghdad.
(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Mohammed Abbas and Ahmed Rasheed, Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Robert Woodward)