MOSUL, Iraq – There's one clear sign that life in the Sunni Arab-dominated (search) western half of this city is changing for the better — children are again playing soccer at night. The reason: fewer terrorist attacks.
The U.S. military says there were fewer bombings and mortar attacks in July than any month since October.
A 50-percent drop in attacks in western Mosul (search) over the past eight months is a marked improvement from the days when U.S. troops routinely had to call in airstrikes and repel synchronized attacks.
But that doesn't mean violence has been eradicated. Though attacks in July were noticeably down, western Mosul still endured over 50 shootings and roadside bombings, the U.S military said.
Soldiers say they're close to solidifying gains and making further progress — if the flow of foreign fighters can be blocked so that terrorist ranks are not quickly replaced. U.S. commanders say they've nearly uprooted the top terrorist network that steered the city toward chaos last November.
U.S. officials attribute the recent gains to the thousands of patrols and raids mounted since Saddam Hussein's (search) regime collapsed in 2003. They contend that nascent local Iraqi forces could be ready to face the terrorist insurgency on their own in six to 12 months, though residents remain wary about a force that relies so heavily on the U.S. military.
But American officials say soldiers are now engaging the local population more than before.
"If you're out there just driving around, you're wasting gas," Army Lt. Col. Michael Kurilla, who commands the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment that oversees the area, told two new soldiers. "If you're not talking to (civilians), the terrorists are."
Terrorist missteps have also helped the Americans.
In February, U.S. soldiers seized a homemade video of terrorist leaders at a large meeting. Those in the video became a target list of people who have since been mostly captured or killed. The new network that replaced the old has little combat experience and is far less effective, Kurilla said.
Progress in Mosul has come at a high cost: 11 soldiers from the 1st Battalion have been killed, and over 150 have received Purple Hearts for wounds. Dozens have decided not to re-enlist in the Army, and about a quarter of one Iraqi battalion — over 180 soldiers — have been killed or seriously wounded.
Concerns about foreign fighters and outsiders entering the city were great enough for the U.S. military to recently send bulldozers around the city to build a sand berm.
Military officials concede the berm's current height — only 3 feet in some places — will not stop most illicit movement, but they say it may help funnel some traffic through city checkpoints.
U.S. soldiers were also helped by the protection of what some consider the U.S. Army's best vehicle for urban combat — the Stryker combat vehicle.
In western Mosul alone there have been some 320 roadside bomb attacks in less than a year, according to military figures, most of which caused little damage to the Strykers. Kurilla estimates that five times as many of his soldiers may have been killed if the Strykers were not in use.
Other factors helped trim the attacks, including the Jan. 30 elections.
"There was a perception of power that the enemy had, and the elections unveiled that off them," said Spc. Jason Reed of Spokane, Wash.