U.S. military officials in Baghdad have reported a “zero monthly murder count” for September in the western capital neighborhood of Amariyah, and declared the former Baathist enclave “a safe and secure neighborhood,” according to a military press release.

While there is no way to fully prove such absolute claims, the release said it was the first time in 20 months that there was a zero murder count in the district.

In the Balkanized Iraqi capital, violence often migrates between districts, leaving an area temporarily for another, often in response to elevated American military presence.

What is clear is that Amariyah — once the location of fierce fighting between Sunnis and al-Qaida insurgents — has seen improved security thanks in part to the deputized groups of community residents.

The trend of organizing and contracting with members of mostly Sunni communities to create armed neighborhood watches by the U.S. military has been credited with stemming violence in Anbar province as well as several districts in Baghdad including Amariyah, Abu Ghraib, Adhamiyah and Yusufiyah.

U.S. military officials have also credited the “surge” of thousands of extra combat troops in Baghdad with stemming the violence in the capital.

For Sunni neighborhoods such as Amariyah, once the home to a professional class, civilian watch groups have come to be relied on for protection from Shiite militias and fellow Sunnis in radical Islamic, pro-al-Qaida movements.

What remains to be seen, according to a government report released in August, is whether these recent gains will translate into long-term stability. According to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a report drawn from the 16 agencies that make up the American intelligence community, civilian watch groups have shown promise.

But the assessment’s authors go on to warn that the predominantly Sunni groups will have to be accepted by the Shiite-dominated central government for the advances to be lasting.

Recently, about 1,500 recruits drawn from “concerned citizens” groups in Abu Ghraib were accepted into the Iraqi police academy. But for the most part, the civilian groups continue to operate outside Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated security forces.

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