Surveying Tikrit from their compound on a bluff high above the Tigris River, a short distance from where Saddam Hussein was captured two weeks ago, America's military commanders are convinced they've finally turned the corner against the insurgency in the former dictator's home base.
Attacks on soldiers have dropped steeply in the Tikrit area over the past month. After more than six months of intensive raids, foot patrols, and intelligence gathering, commanders believe they have tapped into the rhythm of the insurgency. "We're making steady, [unstoppable] progress,'' says Lt. Col. Steve Russell, who commands the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Infantry.
Yet despite recent successes in Tikrit, the war being fought is not the kind to be won with a single, crushing blow. The picture pieced together by troops and intelligence officers across Iraq is one of a fractured, decentralized insurgency. There is no single Professor Moriarty masterminding the violence against coalition troops - and so no silver bullet.
That was brought home on Saturday by three massive, near-simultaneous bomb blasts at coalition bases and the governor's office that injured more than 170 in the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Six coalition soldiers - four Bulgarians and two Thais - six Iraqi policemen, and an Iraqi bystander were killed. During Christmas week, 10 American soldiers were killed in incidents across Iraq. Also on Saturday, a roadside explosion killed a US soldier and two Iraqi children in Baghdad.
On a low-key Christmas Day, during which most Christians stayed home, a series of mortars landed harmlessly inside the coalition's sprawling, gated "green zone" campus in Baghdad, and sirens warning coalition officials wailed through the city, reminding Baghdadis that life is nowhere near returning to normal.
Many coalition officials suspect that some attacks are being carried out by Islamist terrorists whose ties to the former regime are limited. In the Tikrit area, where the insurgency is most clearly linked to people who prospered under Hussein, there have been no suicide car bombs, a tactic that usually indicates a strong religious ideological motivation.
And though attacks on coalition forces have fallen across the country, to about 15 a day from more than 30 a day in early November, Iraqis are still wary of violence. "We feel like we're in a ring of fire,'' says Abu Junaidi, a security guard at an apartment building that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade last week. "We're no closer to peace."
To be sure, the methods used in Tikrit may yield fruit in other parts of the country. In Tikrit, US forces have been able to hopscotch from one captured insurgent to the next as Hussein loyalists have cracked under interrogation, a painstaking process that led to key Hussein aides and less well-known financiers who were using local businesses around Tikrit as fronts for attacks on US forces.
Troops say Hussein's capture deprived local insurgents of their motivation. "Their sails may have been full, but with Saddam captured, the wind dropped,'' says Russell.
Of the 55 officials and Hussein aides on the original "deck of cards" most-wanted list, only 13 are still at large. On Saturday, the US announced $1 million rewards for information leading to the arrest of 12 of the remaining fugitives.
The most senior official still at large, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, has a $10 million price on his head. Mr. Duri has been described by some US officials as a key figure in the insurgency, though most Iraqis find this hard to believe. Even under Hussein, when jokes about the president were dangerous, his No. 2 was a frequent figure of fun to Iraqis. Most people here saw him as a bumbling sycophant.
But one man whose importance to the insurgency is beyond doubt was No. 4 on the list, Abid Hamid Mahmoud al-Tikriti, a Hussein cousin who ran the Special Security Organization, the top-tier in Hussein's sprawling security apparatus dedicated both to protecting to Baath leaders and to spying on them.
Mr. Tikriti's arrest last June was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end for the network of insurgents in and around Tikrit, says Russell. "When we captured No. 4 it gave us some key documents and information,'' he says.
Over time, information from that arrest led not only to a key bodyguard for Hussein who was "the big break" on the trail to the dictator's capture, says Russell, but to many lesser figures, particularly the mid-level moneymen and go-betweens that earlier kept the attacks humming.
Russell says over $10 million in cash has been seized in recent months, even as the asking price for an attack on coalition forces has surged, according to locals. He says the relatively large pool of men willing to attack US forces in the area a few months ago has dwindled as tough tactics have killed many, with few losses on his side. Russell's battalion has lost five men since the invasion.
Local cooperation also is rising, with some tribal leaders giving Russell and others insights on the clan ties that have been key to local insurgency.
The view among soldiers in the 1st Battalion's Charlie Company, who conduct daily foot-patrols in Tikrit, is similar. "We know there are still people out there who want to do us harm,'' says Spc. Byron Foster, from Simms, Texas. "But it's been a week since I've been shot at on a patrol - I can't think of another period as quiet."
Still, the soldiers aren't relaxing. Another says: "I think we're going to be dealing with occasional attacks until the day we leave."