BAGHDAD Signs are emerging that Iraq has reached a turning point. Violence is down, armed extremists are in disarray, government confidence is rising and sectarian communities are gearing up for a battle at the polls rather than slaughter in the streets.
Those positive signs are attracting little attention in the United States, where the war-weary public is focused on the American presidential contest and skeptical of talk of success after so many years of unfounded optimism by the war's supporters.
Unquestionably, the security and political situation in Iraq is fragile. U.S. commanders warn repeatedly that security gains are reversible.
Still, Iraq is by almost any measure safer today than at any time in the past three years. Fears that the country will disintegrate have receded though they have not disappeared.
The wave of sectarian massacres that pushed the country to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 has calmed.
Shiite-Sunni reprisal killings still occur. But gangs of Sunni and Shiite death squads no longer roam the streets at night with impunity, seeking out victims from the rival religious community.
Last month, at least 532 Iraqi civilians and security troopers were killed, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from Iraqi police and military reports.
Although the number remains high, May's total was down sharply from April's figure of 1,080 and was the lowest monthly figure this year, according to the AP count. By comparison, the AP count showed at least 1,920 Iraqis died in January 2007.
American deaths last month 19 including four non-combat fatalities were the lowest monthly tally of the war. In May 2007, 126 American service members died.
Many Sunni insurgents have stopped fighting and turned against al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. commanders say still remains a threat.
But those Sunni groups loosely organized and still armed could resume the fight if the Shiite-dominated national leadership fails to deliver on promises of economic help and a share of power. Critics believe U.S. support for such groups, known collectively as "awakening councils," could set the stage for future conflict.
In the meantime, Sunnis who once shunned politics are gearing up to contest provincial elections this fall.
Shiite militiamen are reeling after military setbacks in Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City districts this spring. But it's unclear whether militia chief Muqtada al-Sadr has given up violence entirely as his Shiite rivals seek to undermine his support among the majority Shiite community.
Despite the signs of progress, recent opinion surveys show that more than 60 percent of the American public opposes the war and believes it will end badly. Democrats lashed out at presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain for saying it was "not too important" when American troops leave Iraq.
Some analysts also question whether the limited political accommodation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds can be sustained if America withdraws its forces quickly. Iran's interest in using Shiite extremists to stir up trouble is another question mark.
With so many uncertainties, many Iraqis themselves fear the relative calm won't last even though monthly death tolls have been declining since the middle of last year.
"This relative calm is the calm before the storm," said Mohammed al-Sheikhli, director of the Transitional Justice Research Center in Baghdad. "The worst violence is not over because the calm may collapse any moment."
That may prove true. Most of the root causes of the war notably the power struggle between Sunnis and Shiites remain unresolved.
U.S. troops have managed to suppress the conflict in Baghdad, maintaining an uncertain calm behind massive networks of blast walls that separate rival communities.
Political progress has lagged far behind security gains, some of them made at the risk of sowing the seeds of future conflict.
Fear and mistrust lie just beneath the surface.
"My Shiite neighbors were very good. They told me to leave because the militias would kill me," said Firas Ahmed, 27, who fled Baghdad for the mostly Sunni city of Tikrit. "Despite the improvement in security in Baghdad, I cannot go back because I'm afraid the situation might deteriorate suddenly."
Reasons behind the decline in violence include the U.S. "surge" troop buildup of 2007, the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a cease-fire called by al-Sadr last August.
When President Bush ordered the "surge," U.S. officials said the goal was to bring down the violence so that Iraqi Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians could forge power-sharing agreements necessary for long-term stability.
The lack of substantial power-sharing agreements has often been cited as a failure of the surge strategy.
In recent weeks, however, the factious, Shiite-led Iraqi government has won a measure of public support by standing up to Shiite and Sunni gunmen even if a list of other goals such as constitutional amendments and a new oil law remain unfulfilled.
A new sense of confidence has emerged after recent Iraqi-run military operations against Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida, in the northern city of Mosul and against Shiite militiamen in Basra and Baghdad.
At first, the Basra operation stumbled badly, with al-Sadr's militiamen fighting government troops to a standstill as their Shiite allies in Baghdad launched attacks against the U.S.-protected Green Zone. American and Iraqi troops rushed to Basra from as far as western Iraq after local army and police units failed to perform.
But a combination of military force and political pressure on al-Sadr produced a cease-fire, enabling Iraqi security forces to expand control of part of Baghdad and Basra that had been under militia domination for years.
Brimming with confidence, Iraqi forces are turning their attention to southern Maysan province, long believed a hub of a smuggling network bringing weapons from Iran to Shiite extremists in Iraq.
The newfound prestige could be short-lived, however, if the government does not move quickly to undermine support for the militants by improving public services and creating jobs especially in areas recently freed from extremist control.
Many Iraqis are grumbling that they have yet to see the effects of the windfall in profits estimated as high as $70 billion this year that the country is expected to reap due to high world oil prices. Corruption and bureaucratic chaos are widely blamed for the problem."Services are very bad and they do not match the government's huge oil revenues," said Kadhim Shnati, 54, a retired accountant in the southern city of Nasiriyah. "Services are not only bad but getting worse. Increases in salaries are overtaken by rising prices."
Contributing: Bushra Juhi