For the first time in years, the Iraqi capital is showing signs of life.
For the first time, however, returning to Baghdad after an absence of four months, I can actually say that things do seem to have gotten better, and in ways that may even be durable. "It's hard to believe," says a friend named Fareed, who has also gone and come back over the years to find the situation always worse, "but this time it's really not." Such words are uttered only grudgingly by those such as me, who have been disappointed again and again by Iraq, where a pessimist is merely someone who has had to endure too many optimists. It doesn't help that no sooner have I written these words than my cup of coffee spills as a massive explosion shakes our building-the first blast near our place in weeks, and the more shocking for that. We grab body armor and helmets and await the all-clear. It is "only" an IED near the entrance to the Green Zone, targeting a U.S. convoy and killing two civilians and one American soldier.
The explosion is the exception to the rule but one of the reasons the U.S. military is gun-shy about claiming success too soon. IED attacks across the country are at their lowest point since September 2004, down 50 percent just since the surge peaked last summer. There hasn't been a successful suicide car bombing in Baghdad in five weeks, and the few ones in recent months have been small and ineffective. There used to be four a day, many of which claimed scores of lives each.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is starting to look like a spent force, especially in Baghdad. The civil war is in the midst of a huge, though nervous, pause. Most Shiite militias are honoring a truce. Iran appears to have stopped shipping deadly arms to Iraqi militants. The indigenous Sunni insurgency has declared for the Americans across broad swaths of the country, especially in the capital.
Emerging from our bunkers into the Red Zone, I see the results everywhere. Throughout Baghdad, shops and street markets are open late again, taking advantage of the fine November weather. Parks are crowded with strollers, and kids play soccer on the streets. Traffic has resumed its customary epic snarl. The Baghdad Zoo is open, and caretakers have even managed to bring in two lionesses to replace the menagerie that escaped in the early days of the war (and was hunted down by U.S. soldiers). The nearby Funfair in Zawra Park where insurgents used to set up mortar tubes to rocket government ministries, and where a car bombing killed four and wounded 25 on Oct. 15 is back in business. "Just four months ago, you could hardly see a single family here," says Zawra official Hussein Matar. One of our translators succumbed to the tears of his son recently and took him to Zawra for his 9th birthday. It was the boy's first visit to a Baghdad amusement park; the war has robbed him of nearly half his childhood.