Baghdad, Iraq Flanked by machine gun-toting guards, Iraq's prime minister ventured out of the Green Zone to tour parts of Baghdad on Friday, chatting on the streets with bystanders and police to demonstrate the U.S.-led crackdown is making progress in restoring order.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's foray came as international envoys arrived in the capital ahead of a conference today on ways to encourage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to help end the crisis here.
The prime minister traveled in a U.S. and Iraqi convoy to an electric power station in southern Baghdad to watch renovation work. On the way back, he stopped at police checkpoints along Mohammed al-Qassim highway, shaking hands with police and soldiers.
At one point, his Iraqi bodyguards, armed with submachine guns, parted to allow al-Maliki to stoop down and kiss the foreheads of children huddled up against cement barriers.
Al-Maliki took advantage of the weekly four-hour vehicle ban every Friday for the Muslim holy day, when there is little traffic in the streets.
His office released no advance details of the outing because of safety concerns, but issued photos and video afterward.
"The conference is proof that the situation in Baghdad is getting back to normal and that the political process is strong and stable," al-Maliki told reporters at the power station.
The trip was hardly a leisurely stroll through the streets, and al-Maliki's armed guards surrounded him, keeping a sharp eye out for trouble.
But the fact that he was able to venture out at all testified to the modest improvements in Baghdad security since the U.S.-led crackdown began last month.
According to an Associated Press count, Iraqi deaths in Baghdad have dropped from an average of 54 per day from Jan. 22 to Feb. 13 to an average of 29 per day since the security crackdown began Feb. 14. The average number of bodies found in Baghdad has dropped from 26 per day to 13 per day during the same period.
Al-Maliki attributed the decline to the Baghdad security operation.
"The terrorist cells are being dismantled and operations will continue until we put an end to this dangerous plight that threatens the unity and the prosperity of the people," al-Maliki said.
"The Baghdad security plan will be accelerated by increasing the numbers of troops imposing security. This operation will be accelerated at all levels, in numbers and weaponry. We will not back down."