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A violent street finds calm

Iraqi forces, backed by US, now keep order in the once-infamous insurgent stronghold of Haifa St.

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"We appreciate all that the Americans have done - they made the big hits in Haifa Street, and we'll never forget that," says Lt. Col. Abdulwahid Refaat. "[But] Iraqis are afraid to talk to Americans.... If insurgents see anyone speaking to them, they are seen as a spy. But if they speak to an Iraqi, it could be about water, or whatever. We are Iraqis, and we know our streets."

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Tension, but not hostility

And they are getting to know them better as soldiers. Some people glower as they pass by, but others wave. Tensions are a little higher with the presence of US troops, but not hostile.

"Before they came, there was no safety, no work, nothing good," says Mohammed Mehdi, an electrical engineer who left the country with his family. He came back with his children a month ago, after calling his neighbor and learning that the Iraqi Army had control. "He said: 'No problem,' and we are so very, very happy," says Mr. Mehdi.

To 1st Lt. Hady Fadhil, the patrol leader, the explanation is simple. "It's because we are here all the time," he says, noting that the unit hands out cards with emergency phone numbers and tip-line details. "If there are any strange moves, we trust people will be calling us."

Tips have poured in about everything from hidden weapons to instances of domestic violence. The first joint patrol with Iraqi police took place on Monday.

"Iraqis have begun to wake up, after the big shock" of the war, says Raad Saleh, a professor waiting for the electricity in his high-rise to kick in so he can take the elevator to his 10th-floor apartment.

"When [Iraqi troops] came, it began to get quiet," says Professor Saleh, motioning to the score of sweating Iraqi and US troops taking refuge in the shady building entrance. "In the last month, it was very quiet - almost normal."

Iraqis describe constant gun battles and explosions when insurgents controlled these streets. A lot near the reed-thick banks of the Tigris was used to fire mortars and Katyusha rockets south, into the Green Zone.

Last July, Iraqis and US armored units were targeted from a mosque at the north end of Haifa Street, sparking a major battle that some Americans compared to the "Black Hawk Down" 1993 battle in Somalia.

Later, a US armored vehicle was knocked out by insurgents. US helicopters trying to destroy it killed a number of Iraqis celebrating the insurgent strike.

But change began last January, during the pre-election security clampdown that stopped all car traffic in the capital for three days. Voting day was tough: Four people caught in Haifa Street with tell-tale purple ink on their fingers - proof they had voted - were reportedly killed with grenades.

So US and Iraqi troops kept their grip on the street, set up rooftop snipers, and began to clear the area - sometimes using tough measures that reportedly included abuse of detainees.

The Iraqi Delta Company moved into the palace of Mr. Hussein's daughter Hala and renamed it "Predator Palace."

A good patrol

"They were pretty good out there, their distance and spacing," Sgt. Garland Deramus, from Lake Charles, La., told his fellow US soldiers after returning from the joint US-Iraqi patrol.

Wednesday, Delta Company was back on the street, confident on their own. Iraqis were visibly more relaxed without the US presence, and the soldiers wound along narrow slum passages, followed by children and complaints about mountains of trash.

The graffiti on the breezeblock walls illustrates the power shift here. Soldiers have been through Haifa with cans of paint, trying to cover up insurgent commentary.

Still visible Wednesday were the words: "Death to the [Iraqi army] spies," and "Long live the Mujahideen." Left untouched: "Long live Iraq!"

It was a sentiment echoed in the cramped alleyways, as older women told the passing Iraqi troops: "God protect you, and God bless you for being here."