For someone who has returned periodically to Baghdad during these past four and a half years of war, there has been one constant: it only gets worse. The faces change, the units rotate, the victims vary, but it has always gotten worse. Brief successes (elections, a unity government) collapse as still greater problems rear up (death squads, Iranian-made bombs). The country's sects grow ever more antagonistic; the killings become more depraved; first a million, then 2 million, then 4 million Iraqis flee their homes. Al Qaeda loses its leader when Jordanian Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi is killed. But it steadily replenishes its ranks of suicide bombers, and morphs from a largely foreign force into a far more dangerous indigenous one. And so on.
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. "Very sustained trends," the official military spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, says cautiously. "But it's far too early to call this a statistically significant trend."
So the following observations do not come so much from the brass: 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.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has gotten so carried away by it all that during a heavily guarded walkabout on Abu Nuwas Street earlier this month he declared "victory against terrorist groups and militias." Even many of his cabinet thought the remarks premature. "That was a mistake," says the minister of migration and displaced people, Abdul Samid Rahman Sultan. "It's too early to say that. Maybe Al Qaeda has gone to sleep, and yes, they lost Baghdad, but maybe they'll go other places." The U.S. commander in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., was even more cautious. "Baghdad is a dangerous place," he said at a recent lunch. "Al Qaeda, though on the ropes, could come back swinging." Victory, he suggested, "is within sight, but not yet within reach."
The generals have good reason to be, as one officer puts it, "wary of that 'Mission Accomplished' thing." (He declined to be identified criticizing the commander in chief's May 2003 gaffe.) Their biggest concern—other than a Qaeda resurgence—is that the Iraqi government has been slow to take advantage of the relative peace to restore services and speed reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis. "Security and stability has created a window of opportunity the government needs to seize," says Lt. Col. Steve Miska, the outgoing deputy brigade commander in charge of the long-troubled northwestern part of Baghdad. The capital's neighborhoods have calmed in large measure because each is now dominated by one sect or another, with tens of thousands of U.S. troops temporarily holding them together (or keeping them apart, as the case may be). "We cannot sustain the surge," says Miska—and once we go, the two sides could well turn on each other with renewed fury.
Meanwhile, though, I can contemplate activities that were once unthinkable: like going out to dinner. Baghdad's famous mazghouf restaurants, selling barbecued river carp on the banks of the Tigris, have come back to life. At one of them, called the Karrada Sports Club, owner Mundar al Haidar recently checked the big circular pools of live carp, and watched as his workers splayed the fish on staves to grill them over a bonfire made of lemontree wood. They were preparing for the evening rush, when these days the restaurant fills to capacity. "You go out now and you feel safe," he says. "The only explosions are far away. I myself left here at midnight last night." Haidar even invited me to lunch at his home, something both of us would have considered foolhardy, even suicidal, only last summer. If insurgents didn't kill me before I left, they would have killed him after.
People who have long lived like fugitives can now do the most normal things. Zuhair Humadi, a high-ranking Iraqi official who lives in the Green Zone, recently attended a public wedding celebration in Baghdad without a massive security detail. The Shorja bazaar in old Baghdad, hit by at least six different car bombs killing hundreds in the last year, is again crowded with people among the narrow tented stalls. On nearby Al Rasheed Street, the famous booksellers are back in business, after being driven into hiding by assassins and bombs. People are buying alcohol again—as they always had in Baghdad, until religious extremists forced many neighborhood liquor shops to close.
This, however, is the new normal. Baghdad's safest neighborhoods are those with blast walls around them. A thousand mini Green Zones have bloomed on the urban landscape, tormented fortifications of steel, concrete and barbed wire. Once wide boulevards are subdivided to channel traffic into search lanes, and divided again by barriers to slow suicide bombers. Both Shiites and Sunnis still take long, circuitous routes to work to avoid each other's neighborhoods. Salih al-Moussawi is a young Shiite doctor from Yarmouk, which became an all-Sunni area after five Shiite greengrocers were set afire and burned to death in public last April. He fled the area then, and avoided it until recent weeks. "Now Yarmouk no longer terrifies me," Moussawi says—he goes shopping there. But he's not ready to move home.
Sunni neighborhoods like Yarmouk have been quieted largely by what the military calls "concerned citizens groups," volunteers who have sprung up all over Baghdad and are being paid by the Americans to combat Al Qaeda in their districts. Many of them are former Iraqi insurgents. "It's huge," General Fil says of the impact of these groups, which go by various names in various communities—the Awakening, Freedom Fighters, Knights of the Two Rivers. In Baghdad, the U.S. military says it has forked over about $17 million to the volunteers, to enroll some 67,000 fighters. "That's less than the cost of one Apache helicopter, and it's done a lot more good," says Fil. "I don't know how many hundreds of lives it's saved."
The volunteers have even calmed neighborhoods like Ameriyah, in western Baghdad. When tribal sheiks in Anbar province declared war on Al Qaeda, this is where its fighters fled; last spring it declared Ameriyah the capital of its Islamic State of Iraq. It was already a bad place, and by last May it was arguably the worst place in Iraq—14 American soldiers died there that month in a series of attacks. Now the district has gone three months without a U.S. casualty or a single "sigact," military-speak for significant action.
The last time I'd entered the neighborhood, for a quick visit to the hard-line Sunni Islamic Party of Iraq three years ago, I thought it was possibly the dumbest thing I had ever done. Even now, getting there is not reassuring; something like commuting to work in an armored submarine, actually just a convoy of Humvees with armor so thick it takes two hands to pull the doors closed. Six-foot-high walls surround the community of 25,000 people, many of them former officers in Saddam's Army (hence the success of the insurgency in recruiting here). Inside it's not a cheery-looking place, but it's bustling: 130 shops are open where only a few were last May. Most of the soldiers of the First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment, in Ameriyah now patrol on foot some of the time, with little worry of being fired upon. Locals greet the American soldiers easily, and acquaintances come up and shake hands, even kiss cheeks in the Arab way.
The cheek-kissing begins in earnest when the Roughnecks, a company of police and military trainers attached to the battalion, arrives at the bustling headquarters of the Sunni volunteers, who here call themselves the Forsan al Rafideen, Knights of the Two Rivers. (The Americans shortened that to its acronym, FAR, until one of their interpreters pointed out that the word sounds like "mouse" in Arabic.) Capt. Eric Cosper, a big man to begin with, looks like a bear in his flak vest as he bends down to hug and kiss the FAR officers he knows best. "What you see here," he says proudly, "has taken six months to build." Like most of the American officers here, the captain is not on his first tour in Iraq, but it's the first one in which he's made a lot of Iraqi friends. "The last six months have been the most rewarding of my career, and my whole attitude to Iraqis has changed," he says.
That kind of sudden camaraderie has raised suspicions among Shiites in particular. They wonder if the Americans aren't letting their hunger for good news blind them to their new allies' true motives. The FAR commander, Abu Abed, is a former Iraqi Army intelligence major who the Americans say had joined a Sunni insurgent group aligned with Al Qaeda. (Abed politely maintains he never fought against the Americans, but his skill at dismantling IEDs has convinced them otherwise.) By way of introduction, he flips out his cell phone and scrolls through pictures, showing two of his brothers in the morgue, the victims of Shiite death squads. One has had his left hand cut off and his other fingers and toes removed; the other had a nail driven into his skull. Both had been taken from their homes by Iraqi police, and were found dumped with 20 others during the height of sectarian violence. The Sunnis of Ameriyah did not allow the police, dominated by Shiites, to build a post in the neighborhood then, and they still don't.
Abed sticks to the script, however. Though Shiite extremists killed his brothers, he blames Al Qaeda instead, for fueling the sectarian conflict that led to their deaths. And the tale of why he sided with the Americans, while familiar, doesn't sound contrived. In May, when two Qaeda fighters tried to kidnap an elderly Christian in the neighborhood, the man's wife clung to his leg. In dragging her away, the kidnappers pulled her skirt off. That touched a nerve with locals already fed up with all the bodies dumped in rubbish and booby-trapped, the 10-year-old boy who was beheaded and then eaten by dogs because everyone was too afraid to get involved. The imam of the Firduz mosque, Sheik Waleed al-Asawi, who witnessed the kidnap attempt, was so angry he went to the mosque and prayed for Allah to kill the Qaeda men. "We were guilty," he says, "because we made Ameriyah a safe place for Al Qaeda." Abu Abed and his men confronted the kidnappers and ended up in a fire fight that the terrorists looked to win, until the sheik called the Americans to come to their aid.
"My men thought I was nuts," says Lt. Col. Dale Kuehl, commander of the First Battalion. "I went into a house, surrounded by former insurgents, thinking this could go either way. They were ready to go on operations [against Al Qaeda] right away. It was surreal, fighters jumping on our vehicles." Since then the Americans have picked off one Qaeda cell after another with information Abed and his followers have provided.
Now Abed's men—300 paid fighters, and another 300 unpaid volunteers—play soccer with the Americans, and even with the Iraqi Army soldiers assigned to the area, who are mostly Shiite. Abed has become a regular at battalion headquarters, where Kuehl's staff officers bend the rules and let him come into their command post armed. "At first we were worried about them learning our TTP [tactics, techniques and procedures], but here they were giving us theirs," says Kuehl. Abed once showed the Americans how to search vehicles for weapons. "He said, 'Give me 20 seconds to hide this gun'," says Maj. Chip Daniels, the battalion's Ops officer, " 'and then I'll give you five minutes to find it'." The soldiers couldn't; he had broken it down and secreted it inside an armrest.
"Everything in Iraq is shades of gray," says Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division. Sunni groups like FAR include "a lot of guys that may have been involved with the insurgency yesterday and may become involved tomorrow. But we have reconciled with enemies before. Right now they're part of the solution, not the problem."
The question is how healthy or sustainable that solution is. Abu Abed's relations with the Iraqi Army are noticeably cooler than with the Americans, and he worries about what will happen when they leave. "If the U.S. Army doesn't stay with us, we can't do anything," he says. The success in Ameriyah owes something to the fact that it's almost entirely Sunni now. Most Shiite neighborhoods, on the other hand, are still controlled by groups like the Mahdi Army, whose ceasefire has contributed greatly to the drop in attacks on U.S. troops but who are still feared by Baghdad's Sunnis.
The plan is not to create warlords in hundreds of little fiefdoms, but to gradually enlist the volunteers in Iraqi police and Army units, to be stationed at first in their own areas. U.S. commanders complain, though, that the Iraqi government has been deliberately dragging its feet on processing the volunteers. Sunni neighborhoods like Ameriyah have also been last in line to get municipal services—a few hours of electricity a day, and trash pickups so infrequent the place looks more like a slum than the bullet-riddled upper-middle-class area it actually is. When the locals were in open rebellion, that neglect may have been understandable. Now it's not, says Humadi, a senior adviser to Shiite vice president Adel Abdul Mahdi: "The Americans have done their part. But the Iraqis have not." (Last week the Iraqi government announced a new $900 million capital budget for Baghdad, double this year's.)
The most important repairs—to Baghdad's psyche—may be out of anyone's control. "The greatest obstacle [to reconciliation] is what the social fabric was subjected to," Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, said last week. For the first time in years, Baghdad's citizens now feel reasonably safe in their own neighborhoods. But they remain fearful of moving between them, across the capital's myriad sectarian borders, some invisible, others marked by high concrete. There continues to be a handful of sectarian killings daily in the city, most attributed to rogue Shiite militias ignoring the ceasefire, but each one leaving a family with a potential vendetta. Patching up Baghdad's social fabric may prove a lot harder than defeating Al Qaeda. And, yes, it could still get worse again. A pessimist is also an optimist who has too often been proved wrong.