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In Baghdad, Iraqis embrace return to normalcy, with eye on its fragility

Why We Wrote This

In Baghdad the differences are striking: Blast walls are coming down, malls are going up, and streets are reopening. But as Iraq's capital sheds the visual reminders of war's long, painful grip, is it enough to just wish peace into existence? Baghdad isn't letting its guard down completely, but the fatigue with fighting and yearning for normalcy are changing the face of the city.

An Iraqi family eats in a fast-food restaurant at the Baghdad Mall in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad in April. With the defeat of the Islamic State last year and a steep drop in attacks and casualties in Baghdad, Iraqis say they are feeling a greater sense of normalcy and safety.
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The result can be seen everywhere in Baghdad: Relaxed Iraqis shop until midnight; laugh, eat, and socialize at fast-food restaurants and hipster coffee shops; or barbecue perch along the Tigris River, where US troops used to dodge bullets. Iraqis are almost giddy with the normalcy that has been emerging in their lives since Islamic State was forced out of its last major stronghold in early 2017. Glitzy malls are opening with high-end shops that inspire confidence; incubators for business start-ups signify new opportunities; and families are flocking to an ever-increasing number of amusement parks. Heralding the change – and suggesting that Iraq is finally emerging from a long litany of war – is the physical transformation on the ground: more open roads, fewer checkpoints, disappearing blast walls. “The roads really do feel different, and you feel like you can breathe,” says an Iraqi analyst. “People are tired of sectarianism, tired of violence, tired of fighting. They just want to move on with life, to develop the country. They want good schools, good hospitals, good roads, and good paying jobs…. Is that so much to ask?”

The ceremony opening a small road along the Tigris River in Baghdad could hardly have been more modest – or more symbolic of how normalcy has begun to unfurl across the Iraqi capital for the first time in decades.

A single red ribbon stretched across the road, one end taped to a wood vase full of plastic flowers, the other end to a cyclone fence. Blocking the road were two battered concrete barriers.

A crane was readied, and the chief of the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC), Lt. Gen. Jalil al-Rubaie, arrived with a security escort bristling with firepower, also symbolic.

The general cut the ribbon and watched as the concrete barriers were chained up and removed.

The message of the road openings – it was the 800th to be opened in the Iraqi capital since late 2016 – is that “Baghdad is safe, and now everything is normal,” General Rubaie said.

Iraqis are doing everything they can to make Baghdad “as beautiful and safe” as it was before 2003, he says, but acknowledges that security challenges persist. The Islamic State (ISIS) “is not finished. Militarily it is finished on the ground,” he says, but ISIS “cells” still pose a threat against Baghdad.

“But we work hard to stop them,” he vows.

Iraqis shop late into the night as they experience a new sense of normal life in the upscale Mansour district of Baghdad, April 13, 2018.
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Indeed, such ISIS cells remain active: One group, dressed up in Iraqi military uniforms and masks, last week attacked Tarmiya, a farming area 25 miles north of Baghdad whose residents had a history of opposing ISIS. The militants killed 21 civilians in an area under BOC control, at a time when Iraqi security forces are on high alert before parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12.

ISIS has vowed to disrupt that vote, in which politicians are campaigning – in a key sign of postwar normalization – on bread-and-butter instead of security issues.

Despite the episodes of violence, Iraqis are almost giddy with the unaccustomed degree of normalcy that has been emerging in their lives since ISIS was forced out of its last major stronghold in Mosul, in early 2017. The threat of suicide bombs, killings, kidnappings, and insecurity has palpably receded, and casualty figures have dropped sharply.

Glitzy malls are opening with high-end shops that inspire confidence; incubators for business start-ups signify new opportunities for young Iraqi entrepreneurs; families are flocking to an ever-increasing number of amusement parks; even the world soccer federation has resumed international games in Iraq – just not yet in Baghdad’s new stadium.

Heralding the change, and suggesting that Iraq is finally emerging from a long litany of war, sanctions, US occupation, insurgency, and ethnic cleansing that has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, is the physical transformation on the ground.

Not only have 800 roads – more than 80 percent of the capital’s closed avenues – reopened in Baghdad, but Iraqi forces have also removed 281 traffic-choking checkpoints. Also gone are 73,000 segments of 15-foot-high concrete blast walls, more than half of the total in the city, which turned Baghdad into an urban maze and shielded and separated Iraqis from one another. 

“You are seeing buildings and streets that you haven’t seen in literally a decade,” says an Iraqi analyst who is close to the government and asked not to be named, because of the sensitivity of his job.

“The roads really do feel different, and you feel like you can breathe. You are not claustrophobic in your own neighborhood,” says the analyst. The plan is for all blast walls to be removed and placed in a ring around the city, miles out.

“It’s not like everybody all of a sudden had a Zen moment. It’s that people are tired of sectarianism, tired of violence, tired of fighting,” says the analyst. “They just want to move on with life, to develop the country. They want good schools, good hospitals, good roads and good paying jobs, and to go on vacation once or twice a year. Is that so much to ask? It really is that simple.”

Until last year, even aspiring to such change and sense of safety seemed out of reach. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had until last year spent 80 percent of this time on the anti-ISIS fight and just 20 percent governing, according to one source, who says that figure has been reversed.

And statistics tell the story: The death toll in Baghdad from terrorist attacks in all of 2017 was less than that of just two days in 2006, military officials say, back when 100 to 120 Baghdadis were dying violent deaths every day.

An Iraqi couple walks hand in hand April 14, 2018, as families experiencing a new sense of normal life visit the vast Baghdad Island amusement park on the northern outskirts of the capital. It was once a US military base referred to as "Bandit Island," set amid date palms riddled with Al Qaeda jihadists.
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The result can be seen everywhere in Baghdad, where relaxed Iraqis shop with their families until midnight; laugh, eat and socialize at fast-food restaurants and hipster coffee shops; or barbecue perch during picnics along the Tigris River, where American troops used to dodge bullets and roadside bombs.

The Baghdad Mall in the upscale Mansour district is a bright example of the new confidence, with its glass edifice and high-end shops stuffed with items from everywhere.

Mohammed Laith Kadhim was only 9 years old when US forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein. Today he sprays perfume on passing customers to entice them into the clothes shop where he works.

His hair is spiked up two inches in a style favored by Iraqi youths. With jeans and thin white T-shirt that are skin tight, Mr. Kadhim says there are “signs of optimism,” even if jobs are scarce.

“The important thing is all families are feeling safe and find what they need in the malls and restaurants,” he says.

Reflecting on the security situation he grew up with, after US troops arrived, he says, “Now the situation is much better, but maybe at any moment it could change. We can’t predict.”

The United Nations tallied 68 civilian deaths in April due to terrorism and armed conflict nationwide – just 8 of those in Baghdad – which is the lowest number by its figures since at least 2008. The overall trend has steadily improved.

“It’s not like ISIS isn’t trying to conduct terrorist attacks,” says the analyst. “They’re trying. But our intelligence services are now that much better that they are able to catch them.”

The uncertainty hasn’t kept many from investing in Iraq’s future. Rusted hulks of car bombs still dot back streets of the Jadriya district. Bullet holes still pockmark buildings around Haifa Street, a former Al Qaeda stronghold downtown. Some hotels targeted by truck bombs remain abandoned.

Incubating enterprise

But emerging from the ruins are places like The Station, a modern co-working space that opened in February to encourage Iraq’s growing crop of entrepreneurs. With its 65 rough wood table-desks, high-speed internet, 3D printer, and gear for working on robotics in a “maker space,” the place could be a start-up incubator anywhere in the US or Europe.

“A lot of Iraqi youth feel jealous and thought, ‘Why doesn’t Iraq have such a thing?’” says Mohammad Samarraie, who helped market The Station and heads his own advertising company.

“Baghdad needs this. We are a country that is coming out of war. We want positivity in society, we want entrepreneurship to be in Baghdad,” says Mr. Samarraie.

“It’s not going to change the situation of Iraqi youth in a day or a night, but it needs someone to step through and say, ‘I’m going to do it’… and someone will follow them, and the impact will start to be,” he says.

“It’s now or never. This is the right time for Iraq and Baghdad to move on,” says Samarraie. “When we see the people who come here daily, we feel positive, because [it is] they are who is going to change the future.”

Among them is Dina Najim, an Iraqi social media strategist who moved from Virginia with her husband last year because Baghdad security had improved so much. They still have a home in the US, as a backup, but the company she works for has seven desks at The Station.

“We saw a big change in our society. We like the idea that we want to develop our community and work with them,” says Mrs. Najim.

“The population now is more young, they want to make a difference. When they graduate from university they don’t want to go to government, they want to start their own projects,” she says. “Students came here, saw The Station, which gave them inspiration to start their own business. They are thinking differently.”

Such changes could not be more dramatic for analysts who lived in Baghdad during some of its darkest days. For them, the improving metrics of normalization are obvious – and the chances of reverting back are growing smaller as Iraqis revel in daily life.

Grilling perch for the Iraqi dish "masgouf" April 14, 2018, as families visit the vast Baghdad Island amusement park on the northern outskirts of the capital on the Tigris River, which was once a US military base.
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“Baghdad is definitely the best it’s ever been since 2003, in terms of security, in terms of freedom of people, and demilitarization of the city,” says Sajad Jiyad, head of the Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies, a think tank in Baghdad. He first returned just weeks after US troops and Iraqis toppled the statue of Hussein.

Universities are setting records for admissions, year after year, he notes. The number of hours of electricity each day has grown; casualty figures from violent attacks are at an “all-time low” since 2003.

“You can drive from Basra [Iraq’s southern city] all the way to Sinjar [on the northern border] and you have no problems. Before you would struggle, even between areas,” says Mr. Jiyad.

But he says the gains are reversible. “It’s not set in stone that we will never go back to where we were,” says Jiyad. “We don’t think the factors are there, to push us back, because people have come together, there is more nationalism now.”

The 'people's issues'

After so much bloodletting and squandered opportunity, though, Iraqis have seen their latest demon ISIS largely vanquished, and security and intelligence services rebuilt and increasingly effective. That trajectory is reflected in the run-up to the election.

“Nobody is talking about the Sunni-Shiite issue. Now it’s about services: What are you doing to fight corruption? How many jobs are you providing? These are people’s issues now,” says Jiyad. “Nobody has the stomach to keep seeing wars; Iraqis are fed up with wars. Anybody who goes out there and says, ‘Let’s go fight!’ will be pelted and told to shut the hell up, because people have had enough.”

That is the message of a video produced by the Baghdad Operations Command in April that highlights progress, reminding Iraqis that when the BOC started work in 2007 it was hard for Iraqis to leave their houses, “terrorism controlled two-thirds of Baghdad … car bombs roamed the streets,” and “public gardens were turned into mass graves.”

The video states that 2017 accounted for only 5 percent of the number of incidents of the previous five years in Baghdad. Some 131 weapons depots were discovered in 2017, and 51 gangs broken up that year, resulting in the freeing of 22 captives. A critical factor has been improved intelligence.

“People are cooperating with security forces, because they feel they are doing something good for them,” says the BOC spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim Attiyah. “Life is coming back.”

Peace has meant booming business for official gun sellers in Baghdad, since licenses are now being issued for pistols and hunting rifles and shotguns, in a bid to control them. In Mansour, the walls of the Alak al-Sahara gun shop are hung with an arsenal of firepower, like any gun show in the US. And customers never stop coming.

“All Iraqis from children to old men like weapons,” says gun merchant Ali Abu Rukaya, checking a pistol for bullets before handing it over for a sale.

“We have lived with wars and civil wars, and it’s continued for decades,” says Mr. Rukaya. “People come here and are comforted about buying because it’s also legal.”

The surge in sales is in part an indication that continued criminality is a concern for many.

“The situation got better from terrorists, but not from individual crimes,” says Ali Ahmed, 27, as he shells out $3,250 for an Italian 9mm pistol. He wants it for personal protection, since his job is in Abu Ghraib, a less-safe area west of Baghdad.

Return to 'Bandit Island'

Such concerns could not be further from the vast amusement park called Baghdad Island on the northern outskirts of the capital, which existed for Saddam-era elite after it was completed in 1982. Later it was used as a base by American troops who, surrounded by its insurgent-infested palm groves, dubbed it “Bandit Island.”

Today it has a vast water park with tubular slides, rides, and picnic areas along the Tigris, and has been buoyed by $55 million so far in private investment. Early season numbers have doubled this year compared with last, with some 40,000 Iraqis passing through the gates each Friday and on holidays.

“People are becoming more optimistic about the situation, they know the game and their mentality is changing,” says Walid Jabbur Salman, one of three private investors who intend to invest a total of $150 million into the 2-year project – just one of a score of amusement parks now in Baghdad.

Mr. Salman fondly remembers coming here with a girlfriend in 1986, when Baghdad Island was the largest park of its kind in the Middle East.

“It was a golden time then, people kept their houses unlocked, we didn’t feel any fear,” says Salman. “We are trying to reach that high level [of security] again.”

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