Commentary: Baghdad is better, but for how long?

BAGHDAD — The blast woke me. The gunfire kept me company as I got dressed.

Just another morning in Baghdad. Though, these days, it's not, really.

But it gets at the question that everyone keeps asking — my friends, my wife, my editors, even the Iraqis I work with here. How is Baghdad these days?

The answer is simple, and it even has a nice rhythm to it: Baghdad is better. Better than it had been in recent years, at least, the post-invasion years. Better until the bombs start going off again.

Then the answer is complicated, which really is a good thing. This city of 6 million — the sounds a constant mix of honking, yelling, praying — is complicated. It should be. This is where civilization began.

It was hard not to notice the improvements, even on the drive in from the airport. No one shot at us on the airport road. There were years — 2004, 2005, 2006 — during which that was seldom the case.

In the city, people stroll, chatting on cell phones; drive chatting on cell phones; sit on benches in parks and at tables at sidewalk cafes, chatting on cell phones. It's not so much that people have cell phones, it's that they feel safe enough not to jerk their heads around constantly, checking for danger, mapping escape routes. It's a sign that life can almost pass for normal here.

I was here 24 hours before I heard my first big blast, and it was so far away that no one felt compelled to check on it for a while.

There's commerce, and the shops fronts are a brilliant explosion of color: snack bags, vacuum cleaners, toys.

Mothers walk small children down the street, in the listless, aimless way that mothers walk small children everywhere, dragged along by fancy. For years, mothers here avoided taking their children outside. If they had to, they dragged them along in quick purposeful darts from shelter to shelter.

New flowers, new green plants, color in the medians, in front of homes and businesses. More streets are open, but so many people crowd them that traffic is messy, chaotic. Drivers still use the sidewalks and head down the wrong side of the median without second thoughts. The pace is less panicked, though, and somehow there are fewer accidents.

Couples sit and gaze into each other's eyes along the banks of the Tigris, as they should.

Yes, Baghdad is better.

Still, there are hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in the crowded streets, armed and armored, checking parked car after parked car. Manning checkpoints that bring traffic to a standstill. Piled into the beds of pickup trucks, thickets of AK-47 rifles pointing out.

The blast this morning was close, a block away. It was right around 7 a.m. I was asleep. A boom, the rattle of the windows, the slight contraction of the chest that comes when a blast is near. This used to be how I'd wake every morning here.

I remember days when the blasts seemed like dots connecting one hour to the next, forming a gruesome picture of this city.

This was a roadside bomb, an attack on Iraqi police or Iraqi soldiers, detonated as a patrol rolled by.

Two soldiers were killed. Ten people nearby were wounded. The blast was just outside a respected restaurant, Hassan's. Hamad, in the office, thinks it's the fourth time it's been hit by a bomb. Still this is Jadriya, one of Baghdad's safer spots, the home of Baghdad University (students were queuing for class two blocks away).

It's been months since something like this happened here. Before, it was different: Al Qaida once tried to blow up our hotel, and managed to close half of it.

After the bomb today, security forces poured out of the police station another block away and opened fire, though in anger as much as anything. There was no further attack, no enemy to target.

The guns popped, built to a constant roar, for 20 minutes, enough time for me to roll out of bed, pull on a shirt, fish out a clean pair of socks, brush my teeth, run a mental check of what I should be doing.

Because that's the problem here. After the blast, beyond the blood now spotting the street, the lives lost, there's this: Baghdad is better. But will it last?

(Schofield reports for The Kansas City Star. A former Berlin bureau chief, this is his fifth tour in Iraq for McClatchy.)


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