Cut and paste in its entirety.
Baghdad’s Weary Start to Exhale as Security Improves
BAGHDAD, Nov. 19 — Five months ago, Suhaila al-Aasan lived in an oxygen tank factory with her husband and two sons, convinced that they would never go back to their apartment in Dora, a middle-class neighborhood in southern Baghdad.
Today she is home again, cooking by a sunlit window, sleeping beneath her favorite wedding picture. And yet, she and her family are remarkably alone. The half-dozen other apartments in her building echo with emptiness and, on most days, Iraqi soldiers are the only neighbors she sees.
“I feel happy,” she said, standing in her bedroom, between a flowered bedspread and a bullet hole in the wall. “But my happiness is not complete. We need more people to come back. We need more people to feel safe.”
Mrs. Aasan, 45, a Shiite librarian with an easy laugh, is living at the far end of Baghdad’s tentative recovery. She is one of many Iraqis who in recent weeks have begun to test where they can go and what they can do when fear no longer controls their every move.
The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.
As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.
Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.
By one revealing measure of security — whether people who fled their home have returned — the gains are still limited. About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.
Iraqis sound uncertain about the future, but defiantly optimistic. Many Baghdad residents seem to be willing themselves to normalcy, ignoring risks and suppressing fears to reclaim their lives. Pushing past boundaries of sect and neighborhood, they said they were often pleasantly surprised and kept going; in other instances, traumatic memories or a dark look from a stranger were enough to tug them back behind closed doors.
Mrs. Aasan’s experience, as a member of the brave minority of Iraqis who have returned home, shows both the extent of the improvements and their limits.
She works at an oasis of calm: a small library in eastern Baghdad, where on several recent afternoons, about a dozen children bounced through the rooms, reading, laughing, learning English and playing music on a Yamaha keyboard.
Brightly colored artwork hangs on the walls: images of gardens, green and lush; Iraqi soldiers smiling; and Arabs holding hands with Kurds.
It is all deliberately idyllic. Mrs. Aasan and the other two women at the library have banned violent images, guiding the children toward portraits of hope. The children are also not allowed to discuss the violence they have witnessed.
“Our aim is to fight terrorism,” Mrs. Aasan said. “We want them to overcome their personal experiences.”
The library closed last year because parents would not let their children out of sight. Now, most of the children walk on their own from homes nearby — another sign of the city’s improved ease of movement.
But there are scars in the voice of a ponytailed little girl who said she had less time for fun since her father was incapacitated by a bomb. (“We try to make him feel better and feel less pain,” she said.) And pain still lingers in the silence of Mrs. Aasan’s 10-year-old son, Abather, who accompanies her wherever she goes.
One day five months ago, when they still lived in Dora, Mrs. Aasan sent Abather to get water from a tank below their apartment. Delaying as boys will do, he followed his soccer ball into the street, where he discovered two dead bodies with their eyeballs torn out. It was not the first corpse he had seen, but for Mrs. Aasan that was enough. “I grabbed him, we got in the car and we drove away,” she said.
After they heard on an Iraqi news program that her section of Dora had improved, she and her husband explored a potential return. They visited and found little damage, except for a bullet hole in their microwave.
Two weeks ago, they moved back to the neighborhood where they had lived since 2003.
“It’s just a rental,” Mrs. Aasan said, as if embarrassed at her connection to such a humble place. “But after all, it’s home.”
In interviews, she and her husband said they felt emboldened by the decline in violence citywide and the visible presence of Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint a few blocks away.
Still, it was a brave decision, one her immediate neighbors have not yet felt bold enough to make. Mrs. Aasan’s portion of Dora still looks as desolate as a condemned tenement. The trunk of a palm tree covers a section of road where Sunni gunmen once dumped a severed head, and about 200 yards to the right of her building concrete Jersey barriers block a section of homes believed to be booby-trapped with explosives.
“On this street,” she said, standing on her balcony, “many of my neighbors lost relatives.” Then she rushed inside.
Her husband, Fadhel A. Yassen, 49, explained that they had seen several friends killed while they sat outside in the past. He insisted that being back in the apartment was “a victory over fear, a victory over terrorism.”
Yet the achievement remains rare. Many Iraqis say they would still rather leave the country than go home. In Baghdad there are far more families like the Nidhals. The father, who would only identify himself as Abu Nebras (father of Nebras), is Sunni; Hanan, his wife, is a Shiite from Najaf, the center of Shiite religious learning in Iraq. They lived for 17 years in Ghazaliya in western Baghdad until four gunmen from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence agencies say is led by foreigners, showed up at his door last December.
“My sons were armed and they went away but after that, we knew we had only a few hours,” Abu Nebras said. “We were displaced because I was secular and Al Qaeda didn’t like that.”
They took refuge in the middle-class Palestine Street area in the northeastern part of Baghdad, a relatively stable enclave with an atmosphere of tolerance for their mixed marriage. Now with the situation improving across the city, the Nidhal family longs to return to their former home, but they have no idea when, or if, it will be possible.
Another family now lives in their house — the situation faced by about a third of all displaced Iraqis, according to the International Organization for Migration — and it is not clear whether the fragile peace will last. Abu Nebras tested the waters recently, going back to talk with neighbors on his old street for the first time.
He said the Shiites in the northern part of Ghazaliya had told him that the American military’s payments to local Sunni volunteers in the southern, Sunni part of the neighborhood amounted to arming one side.
The Americans describe the volunteers as heroes, part of a larger nationwide campaign known as the Sunni Awakening. But Abu Nebras said he did not trust them. “Some of the Awakening members are just Al Qaeda who have joined them,” he said. “I know them from before.”
With the additional American troops scheduled to depart, the Nidhal family said, Baghdad would be truly safe only when the Iraqi forces were mixed with Sunnis and Shiites operating checkpoints side by side — otherwise the city would remain a patchwork of Sunni and Shiite enclaves. “The police, the army, it has to be Sunni next to Shiite next to Sunni next to Shiite,” Abu Nebras said.
They and other Iraqis also said the government must aggressively help people return to their homes, perhaps by supervising returns block by block. The Nidhal family said they feared the displaced Sunnis in their neighborhood who were furious that Shiites chased them from their houses. “They are so angry, they will kill anyone,” Abu Nebras said.
For now, though, they are trying to enjoy what may be only a temporary respite from violence. One of their sons recently returned to his veterinary studies at a university in Baghdad, and their daughter will start college this winter.
Laughter is also more common now in the Nidhal household — even on once upsetting subjects. At midday, Hanan’s sister, who teaches in a local high school, came home and threw up her hands in exasperation. She had asked her Islamic studies class to bring in something that showed an aspect of Islamic culture. “Two boys told me, ‘I’m going to bring in a portrait of Moktada al-Sadr,’” she said.
She shook her head and chuckled. Mr. Sadr is an anti-American cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, has been accused of carrying out much of the displacement and killings of Sunnis in Baghdad. They can joke because they no longer fear that the violence will engulf them.
In longer interviews across Baghdad, the pattern was repeated. Iraqis acknowledged how far their country still needed to go before a return to normalcy, but they also expressed amazement at even the most embryonic signs of recovery.
Mrs. Aasan said she was thrilled and relieved just a few days ago, when her college-aged son got stuck at work after dark and his father managed to pick him up and drive home without being killed.
“Before, when we lived in Dora, after 4 p.m., I wouldn’t let anyone out of the house,” she said.
“They drove back to Dora at 8!” she added, glancing at her husband, who beamed, chest out, like a mountaineer who had scaled Mount Everest. “We really felt that it was a big difference.”