Finding a renewed sense of security in Baghdad - but will it last?

December 11, 2007|By TRUDY RUBIN

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Teenage boys were playing soccer on the grassy parkland along Abu Nawas Street on Friday. A few parents were strolling the street gesturing to their young children as they gazed out over the Tigris River.

Abu Nawas Street was once a famous haunt lined by gardens and popular fish restaurants. But as of six months ago, it was a garbage-strewn strip bisected by 12-foot concrete blast barriers.

Six months ago, when I was last in Baghdad, few cars ventured out on a Friday.

Things have changed. Gingerly, tentatively, people are coming back to the streets for pleasure. And Abu Nawas' parks and fish restaurants - spruced up with government grants - are open again.

Mind you, people's new sense of security is tenuous. In the nearby Karrada neighborhood, a bomb went off in a market last week, killing 14. Many of the low, white stone-block fish restaurants, which reopened only 40 days ago, are still pretty empty.

Blast barriers still divide part of Abu Nawas Street, but now they are painted over with large murals depicting scenes from the era of Hammurabi. And U.S. soldiers, along with private security guards, mainly Iraqi, man unusually efficient 24-hour checkpoints.

Driving farther, I pass a traffic jam outside Zawra Park, where playgrounds have been refurbished and a small zoo restocked to replace animals that died in the war. A long queue of cars waits to get into the park, while guards must swipe mirrors on long poles underneath every car to check for hidden bombs.

This is today's Baghdad, where people all agree that security has improved greatly - and most worry whether the lull will last.

Yet the changes since my last trip are still stunning.

Take Mansour, a well-to-do neighborhood with many extravagant single-family homes that was still a no-go zone months ago, permeated with al-Qaida militants and crippled by explosions. This Friday, a famous ice-cream shop, long closed, was open, and women's clothing stores were full of customers.

Most important, al-Qaida in Iraq is gone from Mansour.

I asked Abu Haidar, the manager of a taxi transport business in a small strip mall, why he thought things had improved.

First, he said, "The culture of people has changed from three years ago." Back then, Sunnis and Shiites were thinking mainly of who would gain power, but now most people realize that sectarian war helps no one

Second, he gave major credit to the movement of Sunni tribal fighters - known as the Awakening - who cleansed Anbar province of al-Qaida. The leaders of the Awakening have sent fighters to some areas of Baghdad, like Mansour, to help local Sunnis do the same. The U.S. military under Gen. David H. Petraeus has made it a key policy goal to support tribal forces and urban Sunnis who once backed al-Qaida in Iraq but turned against it when it started killing them. The decline of the group, which targeted Shiites, has lessened revenge killings by Shiite militias.

But Abu Haidar said ethnic cleansing had turned Baghdad into wholly Sunni or wholly Shiite enclaves that held seeds for future violence. He worried about Iraqi refugees returning home from Jordan and Syria because they often arrive to find squatters occupying their homes, which could stoke violence.

Most of all, he worried about the lack of government leaders in Iraq who could capitalize on the new security gains. The new Sunni tribal fighters could become dangerous ethnic militias if the government does not give the groups' members jobs, he said. But the central government was run by religious parties that were rife with corruption.

As Iraqis know and as General Petraeus states bluntly, today's security gains cannot be consolidated without parallel Iraqi political gains. Whether and how these latter gains will happen is the question that haunts Baghdad.

At the Al Faris fish restaurant, as Ali, the manager, squeezed fresh lemon juice on our sweet, grilled carp, he told us: "People are beginning to feel more confidence. Security helps. But if the Americans leave now, al-Qaida will come back."

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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