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A reporter returns to Iraq – and finds guarded optimism

The evidence is seen in late-afternoon strolls in the park, meetings with long-missed friends, relief over an improved economy.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2008

On Cue: Iraqi boys rack them up as a US soldier passes on a foot patrol with Iraqi soldiers in the Karkh area of Baghdad. Many Iraqis see signs of progress in the gradual resumption of mundane activities in the city – from rebuilding sidewalks to the ability to linger outside an ice-cream store.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

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Baghdad

Walid Nahem sits at a small iron table with his nephew Haidar Karim, green grass under their feet, before them an expansive view of the fabled Tigris River silently wending its way through the Iraqi capital.

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It's still light enough to read Haidar's ninth-grade English lesson book, opened to a chapter on letter writing. But the heat and glare of Baghdad's daytime sun are gone, leaving a diffused light that puts the date palms and low-slung buildings on the opposite bank in impressionistic relief, while taking the edge off the concrete walls and bomb-scarred buildings also in view.

It is this preferred time of day that has brought Mr. Nahem and Haidar out to Abu Nawas Park, a newly reopened and refurbished stretch of riverfront greenery, flower beds, playgrounds, and soccer fields.

"Taking your lesson books outside to the fresh air is like a tradition in Iraq, and now we feel that, at least in this place, it is safe and possible to do this again," says Nahem, a security guard. As families stroll and children squeal at swings and slides, Nahem says this tentative return to old ways is cause for cautious optimism. "God willing, it means all Iraq is getting better, that security is coming back," he says. "I think there's a chance this can be true."

Lingering outside the ice-cream shop

For a reporter last here a year ago, during perhaps the deepest of Iraq's despair, there is a palpable change: visible in such mundane things as sidewalk rebuilding projects and people lingering outside a favorite ice-cream shop, audible in the tone of families returning to neighborhoods they'd fled in fear.

Iraq is a different place now: The grip of horrendous daily violence has loosened; the government is showing some signs of being one. And Iraqis – once among the best educated, best fed, and most widely traveled people in the region, practitioners of a river- and desert-fashioned joy of living – dare to hope.

"Here we can taste again the flavor of life," says Rawaa Fadhel, on his second visit in as many weeks to Abu Nawas Park with his fiancée. "For three or four years, we have stayed in our houses and lived with this pressure," says the employee of a Pepsi bottling plant. "When I go back to my neighborhood, I will feel like my hands are tied again. But six months ago, we didn't even have this," he says of the park, "so it's a sign of progress."

Over the past month, I covered Iraq's stories. Some – like Sadr City's turmoil, a spike in US military deaths, and Iran's growing influence – were variations on ones I'd covered since first coming here after the 2003 invasion. Others – a look at one of Baghdad's new walled neighborhoods, Iraqi impressions of the huge US Embassy about to open here, or questions about the capabilities of Iraq's half-million-strong security forces – more emblematic of this year.

But in many of these stories, common themes emerged: a tentative sense of better security, relief over an improved economy, and manifestations of the cogs of bureaucracy starting to turn again.

New this year, I found, was a widespread assumption of rampant government corruption. That was fed by a general knowledge of the windfall the government is reaping from soaring oil prices, coupled with an impatience for government services to improve faster. A recurring explanation for everything from a continuing electricity shortage to lack of parliamentary action on long-awaited oil-revenue legislation was a silent gesture of a hand first raised so the fingers could make the universal sign of money and then slipped into a pocket.

As one man in Saidiyah told me, "The struggles now are a little less about guns and more about power and money. But as these struggles go on, politics has stopped." Positioning for the fall's provincial elections appears to have taken precedence over national reconciliation.

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