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A violent street finds calm

Iraqi forces, backed by US, now keep order in the once-infamous insurgent stronghold of Haifa St.

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The insurgent grip on Baghdad's Haifa Street once struck fear in the hearts of residents. But today, even a scrawny 4-year-old, clad only in bright shorts, recognizes that change has come.

When a joint foot patrol of Iraqi and US soldiers passes his front door, the boy steps out and flexes his spindly muscles. His family laughs. The soldiers laugh.

"Before, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, for all the bullets flying," says a woman sitting nearby. "Now," she adds, with a nod to the Iraqi troops, "God is truly great."

For most of 2004, Haifa Street was a no-go battleground for US and Iraqi forces. Insurgents set up checkpoints and instilled fear that kept children from school and spurred families to move. Any suspected link to the US occupation or the new Iraqi government was a death sentence.

But today, the street is becoming a high-profile example of how Iraqi National Guard troops - trained, supported, and let loose by US advisers - can claw back territory from insurgents.

US and Iraqi officers hope "Haifa" will serve as a template for spreading government control across Iraq and undercutting the insurgency. But they say it will take years to bring enough Iraqi troops up to the level of Delta Company, 1st Battalion 1st Iraqi Army Brigade, that now walks freely in Haifa.

In a bid to stem violence that has spiked this month, US and Iraqi forces began an offensive against insurgents in the Abu Ghraib district Sunday. About 1,000 US and Iraqi troops also fanned out in western Iraq Wednesday, searching homes and detaining suspects, according the US military, which believes fighters linked to terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are operating there.

Wednesday, a website used by Mr. Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, posted a statement - treated with caution by US officials - that he had been wounded. Iraqi officials also announced that a senior Zarqawi aide was killed in northern Iraq Wednesday.

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