Street life revives in Iraqi capital

A reporter sees brisk watermelon sales, and other signs of normalcy on a hot July night.

I climbed into Adnan's sedan two nights ago, after a failed attempt to meet with a leading Sunni cleric. As the Monitor's longtime driver, he must have sensed my frustration.

Rather than zipping along the highway back to my Baghdad hotel and its cloistered compound, Adnan took me on a detour - to see something that I hadn't seen since arriving last September.

I had been down these major shopping streets before. But tonight they were teeming with Iraqis escaping the summer heat of their homes. Cars were parked two deep. The traffic crawled, while people leaned out their windows to haggle over the enormous watermelons that have come into season. On the sidewalks, people struggled to finish ice cream before it melted, or chatted with friends over tea served on card tables. There's been some street life for over a year now, but nothing like this.

On every other street corner, Iraqi police in new US-supplied sports utility vehicles seemed to be flying the flag and directing traffic - a powerful sign of a domestic security presence. In our 30-minute drive, I was struck by another fact: there was not a US humvee in sight.

Adnan, whose English is rough but effective, said he wanted me to witness the greater degree of optimism on the Iraqi streets since the US handover of power to an interim Iraqi government. Though there have been many attacks since June 28, the overall level of violence in and around Baghdad seems much lower. I've heard precious little gunfire or mortars launched in the evenings during the past week. The silence is so rare in Baghdad that it feels strange.

Whether the honeymoon will last is, of course, anyone's guess. And while the Iraqi public is breathing more easily, Iraqi officials are still being targeted.

On Tuesday, the director general of Iraq's Industry Ministry was assassinated as he left his Baghdad home. Wednesday, the governor of Mosul was killed on his way to Baghdad when his security convoy was attacked. And a suicide car bomb estimated to be filled with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives shook central Baghdad Wednesday, just outside the fortified campus where the new US and British Embassies have been established, and where interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi keeps his office.

It was the first major bombing inside Baghdad in weeks. The blast killed four Iraqi National Guardsman and seven Iraqi civilians seeking jobs inside the complex.

It could be coincidence, but I'm guessing that Iraqi insurgents are giving a brutal history lesson: July 14 was the day in 1958 when a coup overthrew the British-installed monarchy. Most insurgents have sought to connect their resistance to British meddling in Iraq then to the fight against the US presence here now.

Until Wednesday's attack, most would say that the handover has been a success - with Iraqis coming forward with intelligence about crime and insurgent activity to new Iraqi officials who have headed off a number of attacks.

The Interior Ministry says it caught two Iranians with 1,000 tons of explosives wired up in a car in a crowded Baghdad neighborhood about a week ago, and an Iraqi security friend tells me that a long firefight on June 28 between Iraqi and US forces on one side, and insurgents in the city was also part of the good news.

He says the fight erupted after locals called Iraqi police to report that a group of men had fired mortars from their neighborhood. While the firefight certainly looked bad, more typical would have been the insurgents escaping without a scratch after firing off their volley.

"People who would never have dreamed of informing on another Muslim to the Americans. Now they don't have that [obstacle] in their way,'' says my friend. "People don't feel like traitors anymore for doing their part."

I know that the real test of stability will be what happens in the coming months. Though agreements have been signed to disarm or integrate political party militias into the new Iraqi Army, little has been done so far. The fine print in the existing agreements allow for the militias to exist until January, which means they'll be around as political campaigning begins.

A few days ago, I just stumbled across an ominous sign of how Iraq's various political factions are preparing for those elections.

Another friend here, who sometimes acts as a middle-man in arms purchases, says ammunition and gun prices in Baghdad have soared in the past few weeks. He says 1,200-round boxes of AK-47 ammo have gone up by $50 to $450. He says his sources in the market say that militias aligned with Iraq's political parties have been making new purchases.

As for our detour through Baghdad, there was one disappointment. Adnan suggested we stop for some ice cream - an Iraqi passion at this time of year. But it was late. And as impressed as I was by the bonhomie and smiles, I decided that my own comfort level wasn't back to normal yet; a foreigner in the street could be tempting target. I asked Adnan to head for the hotel.

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