The annual Shia Ashura festival brings out the faithful in large numbers, and was banned when Saddam ruled. Since then, terrorists have attacked the Shia participants, killing 55 in 2005, and 181 in 2004. This year, the terrorists were unable to kill anyone. Iraqi police and soldiers supplied the security, with the help of some religious militias. This sharp drop in terrorist activity was no fluke.
Militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr have executed several captured al Qaeda operatives in recent weeks. While Sadr has been a thorn in the side of the government, and the Coalition, virtually since the onset 2003 invasion, and has several times "unleashed" his militias in open warfare against them, he's recently been curbing his more violent tendencies. Sadr is trying to increase his political influence. In addition, as Shias, especially Sadr's followers, have often been the targets of attacks by al Qaeda and by pro-Saddam Sunni Arab gangs. As a result, Sadr has begun using his forces against these groups. Whether this signals further reconciliation with the government remains to be seen. Sometimes there have been confrontations between Sadr gunmen and Iraqi police or American troops.
Citing the existence of Shia and Kurdish militias, some Sunni leaders in Anbar province are urging the government to recognize their local militias, which have been conducting operations against al Qaeda. This could provide increased Sunni Arab buy-in to the government that is now being formed. The risk, however, is that allowing these Sunni Arab armed groups to exercise control over Sunni Arab populations, the militias will often be stronger than local police. But the national government has increasingly powerful armed forces available. But the growth in government military and police power has begun to snowball. While police corruption is most noticed, there are a growing number of efficient police operations. More and more towns and neighborhoods are well policed and safe. Special police operations, like the SWAT and counter-terrorist units, are more numerous and effective. Partly as a result of that, there is increasing public outcry, especially via the numerous media outlets, that the government do something about the kidnapping gangs. It's an open secret who some of these gangs are, and some of them are protected by politicians or political parties. Some of the Sunni Arab terrorist groups are turning to crime, including kidnapping and contract killings. That's because terrorism is seen as a losing proposition, attacks are way down, and more of the "terrorism" events are turning out to be criminal (as in trying to make money) activity.
Terrorism has become difficult because there are more Iraqi soldiers in action, and more elite Iraqi troops are pulling off operations previously only carried out by coalition troops. These include night raids and airmobile (moving troops via helicopter) attacks. The U.S. is providing the helicopters, the Iraqis are providing the planning, leadership and troops. These operations are much more devastating for the terrorists. The Iraqi troops speak the language and can read the body language. So it's much more difficult for terrorists to get away, or keep stuff hidden, during these raids.
This success has made it easier, or just possible, for Sunni Arabs to join the army and police. Tribal chiefs in Anbar province have openly urged their young men to apply for these jobs, and thousands have done so. Al Qaeda and Sunni Arab groups still hostile to the government, attack these recruits at great peril. The tribes quickly go for revenge attacks when their people are hurt, and the terrorists are in a bad situation because of this shift in attitudes. There are fewer places where the terrorists can maintain workshops and safe houses.
There are far fewer (about half as many as last year) Islamic militants crossing over from Syria. Part of this is because of more army activity along the border, and more cooperation from the Sunni Arab tribes. But some of the decline is coming from falling morale. Potential Islamic terrorist recruits now know that their prospects in Iraq are dim. Not only are they likely to kill Iraqi civilians, but if they come up against American troops, the result will usually be dead terrorists and a failed mission. The terrorist money crossing the border is also way down, and police have found more terrorists involved in crime (especially kidnapping) in order to raise money for operating expenses.
American commanders admit that they are negotiating with some Sunni Arab terrorist groups. These things are complicated, because some of the terrorists have a lot of blood on their hands, most of it Iraqi blood. Some of these terrorists have prices on their heads. But if you want to get these groups to disband, you have to make deals that involve U.S. and Iraqi lawyers. All this takes time, and while terrorist activity is down, the groups that are still out there, are still killing people.