From May 15 to June 3 last year, 316 incidents marred stability in Baghdad. This year there were 68.
Evidence of near normalcy is widespread.
In central Baghdad, as carp lolled in a circular pool, Al Faris Restaurant owner Haj Hashim said he now served fried fish to 10 or 12 tables of customers a night, up from only two tables a month ago.
A mile or so away, bookseller Jumaa Mohammed says sales of his newspapers and paperbacks have jumped 60 percent from early this year and 80 percent from a year ago. Now he boasts a table to display them. Before they were spread on the sidewalk.
Between their two establishments, bookstore owner Daoud Mohammed is proud to show his translations of Proust, Melville, Pasternak and Shakespeare. He does so in the dark: power is out again. He sells around 10 books a day, down from about 100 three years ago, but more than earlier this year.
Several developments account for the relative tranquility.
The buildup of U.S. troops last year included the tactic of moving them off so-called forward operating bases and into command outposts closer to the people they're intended to protect. Iraqi forces have conducted successful operations in Basra and Sadr City, the teeming district of western Baghdad.
However, U.S. and British military transition teams worked with the forces, and coalition air support was brought in to help. Militants often say they could whip Iraqi security forces if it weren't for the backing of U.S. aircraft.
But U.S. officials say Iraqi troops succeeded because Iraq's army strength has swelled to 559,000 from around 400,000 a year ago. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki gained street credibility by overseeing some operations himself.
The "Sunni Awakening" in formerly deadly Anbar province helped turn once-hostile forces into allies or at least mercenaries since the U.S. has paid them handsomely against al Qaida in Iraq. A cease-fire declared by cleric Muqtada al Sadr for his large and anti-occupation Mahdi Army militia seems to be holding.
Finally, the Iraqi people are fed up with the violence and are cooperating more with government forces.
"It's a perfect storm of conditions on the ground right now," says Michael Noonan, the managing director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who served as an Army Reservist captain in northern Iraq in 2006-07.
In Basra, Vali Nasr, the author of "The Shia Revival," said the gains were real but that the situation remained fragile. "It depends on continued U.S. operations, but also effectively using the interim peace for state-building provision of services, building infrastructure and jump-starting the economy," he wrote in an e-mail.
The most pessimistic scenario is that the sectarian tensions that have boiled over many times will simply be put on the back burner until enough American forces leave.
"The violence would have been much worse if Sadr hadn't called a cease-fire," said Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group. "Sadr has taken a strategic decision to not contest, knowing in a military confrontation (with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces) that he is unlikely to prevail, knowing that his chances are much better waiting out the storm and then taking what is left."
Many ordinary Iraqis, while somewhat buoyant, are waiting and seeing. Some suspect that the recent offensives are politically motivated to help certain parties in October's provincial elections.
Ali, who works for a government ministry and who asked that his family name not be used because he isn't authorized to speak to the press, voiced a common complaint among many Iraqis: "There are now so many (security) checkpoints that it takes so long to move even one kilometer. To me, it's not security, it's martial law."
Mohammed, the bookstore owner, agrees that security is better, "but we still have tension and fear."
He echoed a standard concern about the American presence: "Are they leaving or staying? Are they friends or occupiers? This is my main question. If they are friends, then American and Iraqi people are friends. If they have the intention of occupiers, it is a different matter."
Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.