BAGHDAD -- Bomb deaths have gone down 30 percent in Baghdad since the U.S.-led security crackdown began a month ago. Execution-style slayings are down by nearly half.
The once frequent sound of weapons has been reduced to episodic, and downtown shoppers have returned to outdoor markets -- favored targets of car bombers.
There are signs of progress in the campaign to restore order in Iraq, starting with its capital city.
But while many Iraqis are encouraged, they remain skeptical how long the relative calm will last. Each bombing renews fears that the horror is returning. Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents are still around, perhaps just lying low or hiding outside the city until the operation is over.
U.S. military officials, burned before by overly optimistic forecasts, have been cautious about declaring the operation a success. Another reason it seems premature: only two of the five U.S. brigades earmarked for the mission are in the streets, and the full complement of American reinforcements is not due until late May.
U.S. officials say that key to the operation's long-term success is the willingness of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic political parties to strike a power- and money-sharing deal. That remains elusive -- a proposal for governing the country's main source of income -- oil -- is bogged down in parliamentary squabbling.
Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs.
Gone are the "illegal checkpoints," where Shiite and Sunni gunmen stopped cars and hauled away members of the rival sect -- often to a gruesome torture and death.
The rattle of automatic weapons fire or the rumble of distant roadside bombs comes less frequently. Traffic is beginning to return to the city's once vacant streets.
"People are very optimistic because they sense a development. The level of sectarian violence in streets and areas has decreased," said a 50-year-old Shiite, who gave his name only as Abu Abbas, or "father of Abbas." "The activities of the militias also have decreased. The car bombs and the suicide attacks are the only things left, while other kinds of violence have decreased."
In the months before the security operation began Feb. 14, police were finding dozens of bodies each day in the capital -- victims of Sunni and Shiite death squads. Last December, more than 200 bodies were found each week -- with the figure spiking above 300 in some weeks, according to police reports compiled by The Associated Press.
Since the crackdown began, weekly totals have dropped to about 80 -- hardly an acceptable figure but clearly a sign that death squads are no longer as active as they were in the final months of last year.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Julie Reed in New York contributed to this report. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.