JURF AL SAKHR, Iraq, Jan. 1, 2007 -- Gen. David Petraeus — with no helmet, no Apache helicopters circling overhead — spent an afternoon in the streets of Jurf al Sakhr, south of Baghdad this weekend.
That would have been inconceivable this time last year. This was bandit country and al Qaeda was lobbing grenades over the wall of the small American patrol base here every night.
The mayor, Sheikh Sabah Athab Khadem of the Janabi tribe, said al Qaeda had driven out the locals and controlled the village for four years.
Petraeus greeted shop owners this weekend who had recently moved back and reopened their stands along the town's block-long main street.
"Jurf al Sakhr was a ghost town just a few months ago," said Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. "This is a place that has really come back."
With 2008 dawning, Petraeus was keen to show what he describes as the fruits of the American troop surge that began in February. Topping the list is a 60 percent drop in violence over the past six months, including a 68 percent drop in roadside bomb attacks.
The year 2007 was the deadliest for American troops in the 4½-year-old war. But December was one of the safest months. Twenty-one American troops died, the lowest number since February 2004.
To be sure, the drone of daily violence in Iraq would hold the power to shock anywhere else. But the sense of growing normalcy is striking, and it is reflected in the voices of Iraqis, who in city after city said they felt safer.
In the southern city of Basra, Abu Abdullah said 80 percent of the country seems safe.
"With the passage of time, I think things get better. Security is better and the capital, Baghdad, is getting more beautiful and better than before," he said. "I'm optimistic."
In the northern Kurdish city of Sulimaniyah, Haji Ali linked the drop in violence to the death of Saddam Hussein.
"We witnessed fewer terrorist attacks after his execution last year," he said.
Petraeus credits some unlikely allies. Better border control from Syria, fewer arms from Iran and a ceasefire with radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who heads the Mahdi army.
In June, a 16-year-old Iraqi girl named Ethar told ABC News in an interview that the Mahdi army controlled her neighborhood of Eilam. She had to use an identity card issued by the Mahdi army to come and go.
"Nobody can protect us now. I just want to live like any girl in the world," Ethar said in June. "But I can't."
Interviewed again this week, she said the Mahdi guards are gone. She can move freely and feels safer, although she, like most women and girls, routinely restrict their movements in the capital for safety.
Another highlight, said Petraeus, is the Sunni Awakening Councils. The U.S. military welcomed Sunni militiamen — many of them former insurgents — to act as armed neighborhood watchmen.
"You saw a rippling effect along the Euphrates River Valley as tribe after tribe rejected al Qaeda," he said.
As Petraeus walked through Jurf al Sakhr, several of the Iraqi men toting AK-47s in the town were not uniformed police or army troops but civilian-clad members of "concerned local citizens" groups.
There were also low points. As the violence peaked in June, insurgents bombed the al Askeri mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, for a second time, toppling its lone remaining minaret and threatening to set off a new wave of sectarian violence. Then they bombed Baghdad's Monsour hotel, killing several leaders of the fledgling Sunni awakening.
"Those are tough days," Petraeus said. "And you will recall that back in the spring we said that this is going to get harder before it gets easier, and that proved to be true."
Still, he acknowledged, there are major challenges ahead.
"No one here is doing victory dances in the end zone, for the gains, while significant, remain fragile in many areas," he said.
The whole point of the surge was to buy time for political progress. That progress has been glacial at best, and it's not clear some of America's new allies will hold on. Many in the Shiite-led government fear the newly empowered Sunni militias and have dragged their feet in incorporating them into the security forces. Some fear that if they remain jobless, they will again turn their guns on the Iraqi government.
In the words of Jurf al Sakhr's mayor and chief awakening council member: "If they have no employment, what do you expect them to do?"