By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki declared victory over "terrorist groups and militias" during a rare walkabout in Baghdad as night fell on Monday.
During the height of the sectarian violence, sunset was a signal to Baghdad’s residents to hurry home to avoid falling prey to death squads roaming the streets, torturing and killing Shi‘ite or Sunni Muslims.
Maliki visited Abu Nawas, a riverside avenue that is one of the most famous streets in Baghdad, accompanied by gun-toting security guards and aides, chatting to teenagers at a football clinic and listening to petitions from local residents.
"We have achieved victory against terrorist groups and militias. Things will not return to the way they were," he said, referring to the bombings and shootings that turned the city’s streets into killing fields and made it the epicentre of sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands.
Roadside bombs and shootings are still a near daily event, but the overall death toll has been sharply reduced since U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a major crackdown in February.
During his 30-minute walkabout, Maliki was approached by Zahra Jassem al-Maliki who asked him for help in caring for 12 children who had been left orphaned after gunmen killed her brother and his wife in Doura, one of Baghdad’s most dangerous neighbourhoods.
"What kind of help do you want?" asked the prime minister.
"I want shelter so that they can live and money to help them," said Jassem, wearing traditional black Muslim dress.
Maliki’s stroll took him to a nearby football pitch on the banks of the Tigris where Laith Hussein, a well-known Iraqi footballer was holding a clinic for teenagers.
"If the security situation was not stabilised I would not have been able to bring together these players who come from different neighbourhoods in Baghdad," Hussein said.
The U.S. military said last week that violence in Iraq had dropped to its lowest level since January 2006, while the Interior Ministry said the number of attacks in Baghdad had dropped by 70 percent since the end of June.
Civilian deaths from violence in Iraq fell to 758 in October, their lowest level this year, according to government figures. U.S. military fatalities also showed a sharp drop, with 39 reported for the month, the lowest since March 2006.
U.S. generals say the figures show that the strategy of pouring 30,000 extra troops into Iraq this year to secure Baghdad and other troubled areas, and of moving U.S. troops out of large bases into smaller combat outposts where they live and fight alongside Iraqis, is having a signficant impact.
Officials say it is also partly due to a ceasefire declared by anti-American Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who ordered his feared Mehdi Army militia to freeze its activities for six months in August.
But analysts say any military gains are of limited value as long as Iraq’s feuding leaders fail to agree on key laws to foster national reconciliation.
(Writing by Ross Colvin; editing by Ralph Boulton)