From Chicago Tribune:
Since the last soldiers of the "surge" deployed last May, Baghdad has undergone a remarkable transformation. No longer do the streets empty at dusk. Liquor stores and cinemas have reopened for business. Some shops stay open until late into the evening. Children play in parks, young women stay out after dark, restaurants are filled with families and old men sit at sidewalk cafes playing backgammon and smoking shisha pipes.
Shorja Market in Baghdad - Nov 3, 2007
To be sure, Baghdad is still a violent and dangerous place. Pockets of territory remain under the control of the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization. Bandits and gangsters roam back alleyways. Explosions still rumble, though far less frequently than they did a few months ago. Many issues remain unresolved and much still could go wrong.
I feel completely safe.
But for the first time in years, Baghdad's residents are starting to remember what an ordinary life is like. "I used to close my shop at 6 p.m. but now I stay open till 9 or 9:30. Then I walk home and I feel completely safe," said Jawad al-Sufi, 64, who runs the House of Hijab head scarf shop in the much-bombed district of Karradah. He had to replace his windows five times because of bombings outside his shop, but there has hardly been an attack in Karradah since September. "It happened very suddenly," he said. "There was a sharp turnaround, right after Eid," the Muslim holiday in late October. "Since then, security has improved 85 percent."
It happened very suddenly... security has improved 85 percent.
It's not only that Baghdad is starting to feel normal. Statistics compiled by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government show that the violence has fallen significantly countrywide. Most of the figures are not broken out for Baghdad, but the capital has in the past accounted for a high percentage of the violence.
The number of explosions of all kinds has fallen sharply, to a level not seen since September 2005, according to the U.S. military. Mortar attacks also are down, from an all-time high of 224 in June to 53 in October. A senior U.S. general said Thursday that the number of bombings in the country had dropped by almost half since March. Reliable casualty figures have been hard to come by since the government stopped publicizing monthly tallies earlier this year, but inevitably the reduction in attacks also has reduced the number of deaths. According to an Associated Press tally, 750 people were killed in Iraq in October, down from 2,172 last December. Iraq's Interior Ministry gives an even lower figure for the month: 506 civilians killed nationwide. U.S. military casualties also have dropped recently, from a year's high of 126 in May to 38 in October.
Students at Al-Mustansiriyah University - Nov 5, 2007
U.S. and Iraqi officials attribute the improvement to a variety of factors. The surge of nearly 30,000 extra U.S. troops sent to Iraq undoubtedly has played a part, as have the increased capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. Whereas it was normal in the past to travel across Baghdad without encountering any security forces, now there are checkpoints every few blocks, and smartly dressed Iraqi police stand guard on street corners.
the real change has been that the populace rejects Al Qaeda.
Far more significant than the increased troop presence, officials say, is the revolt that has taken place within Sunni neighborhoods against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Echoing the successful tribal rebellion against Al Qaeda in Anbar province, local Sunni insurgents have turned against their former allies, driving Al Qaeda operatives out of their strongholds and ending the reign of terror that the extremists had perpetrated. "There's obviously our offensive operations to strike against those extremist groups, but the real change has been that the populace rejects Al Qaeda," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq, said at a Pentagon briefing earlier this month.
(al-Qaeda) will not have a safe home here anymore.
Iraqi officials already are declaring victory. "[Al] Qaeda has been defeated completely. And soon they will cease operating completely," Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said in an interview in his office. "We expect them to have some attacks, they will make huge efforts and maybe they will succeed in one or two instances. But now they're shifting their operations outside Iraq. They will not have a safe home here anymore."
U.S. officials are more cautious. Al Qaeda has rebounded from past setbacks, and it almost certainly is trying to regroup, they say. "Al Qaeda, though on the ropes, is not finished by any means," Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the U.S. commander in Baghdad, told reporters in a Nov. 6 briefing in the capital. "They could come back swinging if they're allowed to."
Applause at a play in al-Mutanabi Street - Nov 8, 2007
now there is no need for sectarianism.
The drop in the kind of mass-casualty bombings inflicted by Al Qaeda on the Shiite community that ignited Shiite rage has also removed one of the chief motives of the Shiite militias engaged in retaliatory death-squad activity against Sunnis. The Mahdi Army militia loyal to cleric Moqtada Sadr, blamed for much of the killing, declared a six-month cease-fire in August, and U.S. officials and Iraqis say they mostly appear to be adhering to it. "The militias were created as a reaction to what Al Qaeda was doing, but now there is no need for sectarianism," said Sheik Ali Hatim Ali Sulaiman, the head of the Dulaim, the biggest Sunni tribe and a key figure in the Awakening movement that has transformed the Sunni community. "There is still sectarianism, but hopefully it will go away eventually."
I think it's over.
For some, the Mahdi Army cease-fire has played a more significant role in making the city safer than the dispersal of Al Qaeda. Liquor store manager Hazim Hameed, 27, used to receive one or two threatening visits a day from Mahdi Army representatives, until he finally gave up and closed nearly a year ago. Sensing the new mood, he reopened his shop on the once-desolate Saadoun Street running through the city center last month. Not only has he received no threatening visits, but the local representative of the Sadr office summoned him, gave him his phone number and told him to call if he had any trouble. "He told me the Mahdi Army has no problem with what we are doing anymore, and that if anyone threatens me or asks me for money I should tell him immediately, because those people are not Mahdi Army, they are gangsters," he said. "I think it's over," he said of the violence. "Soon, I expect even the bars will reopen."
"Anything could still go wrong," said a Sunni resident of the former Al Qaeda stronghold of Dora, where local insurgents turned against Al Qaeda just in the past month. They lifted the Islamist rules banning smoking and requiring women to wear head scarves, and encouraged shops in the once-shuttered streets to reopen, bringing a semblance of life back to what once was regarded as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad.
Exotic birds on sale in al-Ghazl Market - Oct 19, 2007
First we thank God, and then we thank the Americans.
"First we thank God, and then we thank the Americans. But the politicians have played no part in this," said Sulaiman, the Sunni tribal leader, who is concerned that the lack of progress at the national level could frustrate the Sunni tribes and prompt them to return to the insurgency. U.S. officials are mindful that another major attack such as the one that destroyed the Shiites' Samarra shrine in February 2006 could ignite a fresh round of bloodletting. Though U.S. commanders have said it may be possible to start sending back the extra U.S. troops deployed for the surge by the middle of next year, military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said last week that the military plans to sustain the Baghdad security plan at its current levels "for the foreseeable future."
the country can go back to its normal self.
But at the Iraq Casino on the bank of the Tigris River, where men crowd the tables sipping tea and smoking shisha pipes until shortly before the midnight curfew, proprietor Dhiya Nsayef, 49, says he thinks Iraqis have learned their lesson. Photographs of his three brothers killed at an Al Qaeda checkpoint south of Baghdad in May 2005 hang over the doorway. There was a time, he said, when he thought only of revenge for their deaths. "But not now. Now, whom do we take our revenge against?" he said as the sun slipped below the horizon and the tables began to fill up. "I think we already took our revenge because Al Qaeda has been defeated. And when Al Qaeda is completely gone, Sunnis and Shiites can go back to their original neighborhoods and the country can go back to its normal self."