Pour ceux qui doutent des énormes progrès réalisés en Irak, voici une vidéo tournée à Ramadi par le journaliste indépendant Michael Totten.

Ramadi Totten

En 2006, le Corps des Marines des États-Unis considérait que Ramadi avait été perdue aux mains d'Al-Qaeda. Un an plus tard, cette ville située en plein coeur de la province d'Anbar (et du triangle sunnites) c'est débarrassée des terroristes et les gens pensent désormais à reconstruire. Cet exploit a été rendu possible par le soulèvement des citoyens de Ramadi qui ont décidé de collaborer étroitement avec l'armée américaine.

Et pour ceux qui doutent encore des progrès en Irak, même la BBC a été obligée d'admettre que le pays est sur la bonne voie…

Is Iraq getting better?

Is Iraq getting better? The statistics say so, across the board.

Over the past three months, there has been a sharp and sustained drop in all forms of violence. The figures for dead and wounded, military and civilian, have also greatly improved.

All across Baghdad, which has seen the worst of the violence, streets are springing back to life. Shops and restaurants which closed down are back in business.

People walk in crowded streets in the evening, when just a few months ago they would have been huddled behind locked doors in their homes.

Everybody agrees that things are much better.

But is the improvement only skin deep? And will it last once the American troops, whose "surge" has clearly made a difference, begin to scale down?

In the past few days, two events have underlined big changes that have happened in recent months on both the Sunni and Shia sides of the Iraqi equation.

Reign of terror

On Thursday, in a crowded public hall in the mainly Shia city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, the local police chief, Brig-Gen Ra'id Shaker Jawdat, bitterly denounced the Mehdi Army militia, accusing it of presiding over a four-year reign of terror there.

It was an extraordinary occasion. One by one, men and women stood up and screamed abuse at the militia, blaming it for killing and torturing their loved ones.

It could not have happened a few months ago, when the Mehdi Army – the military wing of the movement headed by the militant young Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr – was the real power in the streets of Karbala.

A few days later, Moqtada Sadr ordered his followers to halt all forms of military action nationwide, even in self-defence.

That was a turning-point in Baghdad too. The number of bodies being found daily, dumped randomly in the city after being abducted, tortured and killed in sectarian reprisals, dropped from dozens a day to less than a handful.

Scenes of rejoicing

On Friday, near Samarra to the north of Baghdad, fighters from a Sunni faction called the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) launched a surprise attack on positions held by al-Qaeda in the area.

Police said the IAI killed 18 al-Qaeda militants and captured 16 others.

Shortly afterwards, another Sunni group known as the 1920 Revolution Brigades launched a similar operation against al-Qaeda at al-Buhriz in Diyala province, also north of Baghdad.

They captured 60 al-Qaeda suspects and handed them over to the Iraqi army, amidst scenes of rejoicing in the town's streets.

These also were events that simply could not have happened until recently.

Both the IAI and the 1920 Revolution Brigades used to be insurgent groups themselves, fighting alongside al-Qaeda against the multinational forces and Iraqi government troops.

Blow to militants

Now, starting with the western al-Anbar province and spreading east to Baghdad and mainly Sunni areas to the north, there has been a gathering trend whereby Sunni tribes and nationalist groups have turned against al-Qaeda as their primary enemy.

The Americans have seized on the tactic, encouraging tribal and other Sunnis to form regional associations, such as al-Sahwa (The Awakening), as a vehicle for getting government and coalition support.

In the provinces, tribesmen joining up are paid $600 a month to protect their own areas against al-Qaeda.

The trend has spread deep into mainly Sunni districts of Baghdad, where al-Sahwa has filled the gap left by al-Qaeda.

American forces have recruited thousands of young men, who are given uniforms and $300 a month to act as neighbourhood guards (known in US military jargon as Concerned Local Citizens, or CLCs).

They apply in droves, as there are no other jobs in town.

US forces have moved into virtually every area and set up fixed positions. They have local mobile phone numbers emblazoned on their vehicles for the CLCs to call if they run into trouble.

This, combined with the way in which the US troop surge has proactively tackled any al-Qaeda presence it can detect, has dealt a massive blow to the Sunni militants.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, is now openly claiming victory against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

US military leaders are more cautious.

"There is no part of Baghdad in which al-Qaeda has a stronghold any more," said Brig-Gen Joseph Fil, commander of the Multinational Forces in Baghdad.

"But Baghdad is a dangerous place. Al-Qaeda, although on the ropes, is not finished by any means. They could come back swinging if they're allowed to, in fact, we've seen it," he added.

Bomb attacks rarer

But there is no doubt that it has lost out massively in Baghdad.

One resident of the mainly-Sunni area of Dora, in the south of the capital, summed it up.

"The Islamic State in Iraq (the umbrella name adopted by al-Qaeda groups) used to control most of the area like a phantom presence. I know Shia shopkeepers who were shot dead in their shops."

"They put up notices warning people to wear strict Islamic dress. Everybody was frightened. When we called the police to report bodies on the street, they said it was a no-go area and they couldn't come."

"Now, the Islamic State elements have disappeared. Shops have reopened. My daughter can walk to school without wearing a headscarf. Some Shias who fled have come back. And most important of all, we haven't heard of anybody being killed since July."

The setback dealt to al-Qaeda and affiliates has had a knock-on effect in the Shia communities too.

The often massive, indiscriminate bomb attacks for which they were blamed, and which used to hit Shia areas on a daily basis, have now become a rarity.

The huge drop in bomb attacks has removed one of the main raisons d'etre for the Mehdi Army, the most active Shia militia in Baghdad.

Since neither the state nor the coalition forces had been able to stop the bomb attacks before, the Mehdi Army could pose as the only saviour of the Shias from slaughter at the hands of fanatical Sunni extremists.