BAGHDAD — Taking advantage of a dramatic drop in car bombings and sectarian murders, Baghdad residents are once again venturing out to local markets and restaurants after dark in many parts of the city. They're celebrating weddings and birthdays in public places and eating grilled carp on the Tigris River late into the night.
A local television station has begun a feature called "Baghdad Nights," showing the capital's residents shopping, eating and socializing after the sun has set — a sight that until recently was unheard of in most neighborhoods.
In Mansour, in central Baghdad, eight young brides, dripping in new gold given to them by their grooms, visited Tanya's hair salon this week. Just two months ago, the shop was lucky to get one bride a month. "Before there used to be no merrymaking for the bride," said Suad, a young hairdresser who would only give her first name for safety reasons. "Now they are coming again."
As Baghdad has changed, even security barriers have had a makeover, incorporated, if that's possible, into the urban landscape. Over the past six months, artists have painted them with depictions of Iraqi life, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and fantasy pictures of peaceful scenes.
But Baghdad residents are skeptical that their new freedom will last.
"It's in the hands of God now," said Umm Fatma, her roots covered in bleach at the hairdresser's. "We don't know the future."
McClatchy reporters who drove through Baghdad and telephoned residents across the capital discovered a city that's become calmer. The calm, however, is the result of a divided city.
Blast walls, decorated or not, still ring neighborhoods and markets. Military and police checkpoints checker the roads. In some mixed-sectarian neighborhoods, such as Saidiyah, in south Baghdad, and Salam, in central Baghdad, Sunni and Shiite Muslims are still fighting over turf. Other neighborhoods have become segregated into Shiite and Sunni zones. In some mixed neighborhoods in southwest Baghdad, reconciliation efforts have brought tense cease-fires between Shiites and Sunnis huddling on their sides of the neighborhoods.
Yet in some places there's a restoration of civility. In north Baghdad, in the mixed al Qahira neighborhood, Islam Mohammed ran through the streets on a recent night searching for his lost dog. The Sunni man ran from his Sunni enclave into the Shiite sector chasing after his German shepherd at midnight. Shiite residents offered to help, and by 1 a.m. Mohammed had scooped up his dog and returned home.
"Two months ago I would never have even thought of going after the dog there, not even in daylight," Mohammed said. "It is very sad that surrounding neighborhoods have become one sect. I hope it will not become a prerequisite for having peace in our lives."
On Sunday, "Baghdad Nights" filmed in Karrada, which had long been among the safer neighborhoods in the capital. Families held their children as they perused the aisles of the Warda grocery store or ate colorful scoops of ice cream at al Faqma ice cream parlor. The background music was "Salamat," an Iraqi song about peace.
But the Sunni enclaves of Adhamiyah, Ameriyah and Ghazaliyah never show up on "Baghdad Nights."
Statistics tell some of the story. In December 2006, two months before the start of the U.S.-Iraqi plan to restore security to Baghdad, 1,030 dead bodies were found throughout the capital, victims of sectarian cleansing. Last month, that number fell to 174, a still-frightening figure but only a fraction of the previous year's. Car bombings dropped from 38 to 20.
In December 2006, 361 people were killed in Baghdad, and in January, 438 were, according to a McClatchy count. In October, 143 were killed. Some attribute the lower numbers to the completion of sectarian cleansing and the segregation of sects in much of the capital.
The number of the displaced, however, has tripled since January, according to the Red Crescent humanitarian organization, and about two-thirds of the victims are children. Most Iraqis who have returned to their homes from abroad have done so because they were penniless, unable to work or deported from their countries of refuge.
One U.S. military official credits the positive changes around the capital to a series of factors: a six-month cease-fire by the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia blamed for much of the sectarian killing; blast walls that segregate neighborhoods and protect markets; the U.S. troop surge; a Sunni volunteer movement; and less opportunity for sectarian cleansing with neighborhoods divided or already cleansed.
"Realistically, given everything that has happened in the past two years, I suspect that we will have segregated neighborhoods for a time to let civil society build," said a senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak. "While we would all prefer an integrated society, a peaceful segregated one is better than a violent integrated one."
There are small rays of hope in the unlikeliest of places. In Ameriyah, once a bastion for Islamist extremists who assaulted civilians across the country, Abu Qassim walked to his sister's for a birthday party on Monday. A few months ago that would've been impossible. The garbage that blanketed the streets of this once-upscale neighborhood is gone, and at 6:30 p.m. Abu Qassim sat with his brother and sister, drank a Pepsi and swayed to music before they sang, "Sana halwa ya jameel," (a beautiful year, oh beautiful) and cut the chocolate cake.
Just seven months ago Abu Qassim had been kidnapped in this same west Baghdad neighborhood; he was luckily released. Now as he walks home at night, the roads are quiet, due to a six-month-long vehicle-ban, and the local market is open until 11 p.m. But no Shiites have returned, and they still shudder at the thought of entering Ameriyah.
"It has changed," he said of his enclosed neighborhood patrolled by Americans, the Iraqi army and a neighborhood watch group. "There were dead bodies in the streets every day before."
Palestine Street, a main thoroughfare from southeast Baghdad to the northwest that was once blocked in the middle, is open. Across the river on Haifa Street in central Baghdad, once deserted, squatters hang their laundry on the balconies of bullet-scarred buildings. Women scurry across the street with shopping bags on a road once riddled by sniper fire.
In Mansour, in central Baghdad, young fashionistas in jeans and tunics shop for clothes, and families drink tart pomegranate juice and fresh orange juice in al Mishmisha juice shop.
Ghazaliyah, once an insurgent bastion, has fallen into an uneasy calm. Violence is down, but Shiites returning to the mostly Sunni enclave aren't welcome. When a family of three tried to check on their home, they were run out by bullets from a passing car. Graffiti on the wall warns "Death to the rejectors," referring to Shiites with a derogatory term.
In southwest Baghdad, Amil, Bayaa, Jihad and Shurt al Rabaa, where Sunnis were in danger of being eradicated, the sectarian violence has been contained by reconciliation efforts spearheaded by U.S. troops.
In Amil, in southwest Baghdad, a battleground between the Sunnis and Shiites, a main thoroughfare opened last week between the Sunni and Shiite sides of the embattled neighborhood, and a wedding entourage drove up the street to celebrate a couple's new life. Just a few blocks away, a black flag fluttered in the wind. "Sadrist Revenge," it read.
Mohammed al Tai, a Shiite, fled the Sunni side of the neighborhood because of the violence. Today, in his rented home, he smiles at the thought of the open road. Maybe soon, he can return but not now, he said. Not now.
"I still don't trust the people I don't know," he said. "It's just the beginning of reconciliation."
(McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this report. )