Is the two-month-old security push in Baghdad working?
In places, yes. But every day brings conflicting evidence. This week, a US official reported a 26 percent decline in civilian deaths from February to March in the capital.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Iraq parliament's cafeteria in the heavily fortified Green Zone. He also killed one Sunni lawmaker, Mohammed Awad. That attack came hours after a truck bomb destroyed one of seven major bridges in Baghdad. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the cafeteria's location.]
Although sections of the city remain war zones – and attacks are up outside Baghdad – there are new pockets of relative calm emerging. For some Baghdadis, the security plan is starting to provide an opportunity for a few simple pleasures: a meal in a restaurant, a stroll inside heavily guarded parks and gardens, or a quick shopping trip despite the uncertain outlook.
Overall, there has been a drop in sectarian-related murders and daily bombings due to the stepped up presence of US and Iraqi forces on the streets. The troop "surge" is not expected to reach full strength until June.
In Mansour, a once upscale area that until a few weeks ago was a ghost town because of the violence, some shops have reopened and people can be seen browsing windows or buying ice cream cones at Al-Rawad, a favorite of Baghdadis.
"Two months ago we had no one; now business has improved by 65 percent," says Lamia Ali, a salesperson at the Grand bridal store.
Aseed Yasin is shopping with his fiancée Zeinab Samir to pick a wedding dress because all shops in their predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Amiriyah were shut, he says, due to a rocket attack on the market on Tuesday.
"The situation is unbearable, we are getting married on Thursday and then off to Syria," he says.
A birthday celebration out
Earlier this week, Ahmed Yaqthan and his wife Samar Mahdi mused about the potential for a suicide bomber to walk into the crowded restaurant where they had ventured out for lunch to celebrate her birthday.
"I say whatever God has fated will happen," says Mrs. Mahdi, who is without a veil and dressed in a fashionable blouse – a rare sight in an increasingly conservative society.
The city's go-areas tend to be in the center and can be counted on one hand. On Tuesday, a day before their restaurant outing, Mahdi and Mr. Yaqthan were huddled for hours at their offices at the state audit board on the city's west bank on Haifa Street, about a mile from the fortified Green Zone. The couldn't leave because of heavy clashes between insurgents and US and Iraqi forces in the Sheikh Omar and Al-Fadhil areas just across the river.
At least seven people were killed, including four Iraqi soldiers, and 16 US soldiers were wounded in the fighting which involved Apache helicopters, according to the US military.
"When things calmed down a bit we just took an alternative route and went home," says Yaqthan, a bespectacled computer programmer speaking over the sound of Arabic pop songs streaming from loudspeakers overhead.
On Thursday, the Sarafiya bridge, one the couple sometimes use to cross over from their home on Palestine Street to their offices, collapsed after it was hit by a truck bomb killing at least 10 and wounding 29, according to a Ministry of Interior source.
The bridge and parliament bombings "are very calculated political messages that are meant to affect the morale of the government and its [international] backers. The claim that the security plan has sent insurgents scattering into the provinces has proven to be false," says Mustafa al-Ani, director of the Security and Terrorism Studies program at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
Earlier this week, the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few international aid groups operating in Iraq, issued a report that said "The humanitarian situation in Iraq is steadily worsening." Red Cross director Pierre Kraehenbuehl told the Associated Press that there has been no improvement in the security situation in Baghdad.
New doctors plan to leave
Out on the restaurant's terrace, a smiling Mateen Yashar in suit and tie with an Iraqi flag pin stuck to his lapel sits among two dozen of his classmates celebrating their graduation from Baghdad University's medical school.
Everyone is dressed to the nines. Female graduates are wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads and clutch elaborate bouquets.
The day before, Mr. Yashar says, some of them were at their school adjacent to Al-Kindi hospital near Al-Fadhil when a student was hit and injured by a stray bullet from the fighting.
"You ask me to worry about what happened yesterday or this morning when we live our lives from minute to minute," he scoffs.
He says nearly a quarter of the 106 new doctors in the class of 2007 are already leaving Iraq, with the remainder working hard to do the same.
Someone in his group calls for the check. No lingering here because everyone must be home by 6 p.m., four hours before the start of the nightly curfew. Checkpoints or fighting could delay them by hours.
Out on Al-Rubaie Street, a stretch of shops, cafes, and restaurants on the capital's east side barricaded on both ends by Iraqi Army checkpoints, the owner of the Lailan hookah lounge says he reopened 10 days ago after being closed for months.
"People are really fed up so they come here and puff away for a bit," says the owner Muwaffaq Kamel when asked if business was improving because of the security plan.
New posters are starting to appear on the concrete blast walls protecting government buildings. "Iraq's light will never go out," declare the signs, part of a new government PR campaign. They show smiling actors posing as a doctor, mother, teacher, day laborer, and taxi driver. All urge Iraqis to go on with their lives despite the challenges.
In Mansour, at the Mishmisha juice shop, newlyweds Nabhan Ghazi and Alia Safir treat themselves to fruit cocktails topped with fresh cream.
He's unemployed and she's a schoolteacher and they live with Mr. Ghazi's parents in Saidiyah, a violence-wracked area south of Mansour.
"We have no prospects, but we decided to take the plunge and get married because we are not getting any younger," she says wearing a white veil matching her trendy outfit.
"We are suffocating in Saidiyah so we came here today for a breather."