Iraq: The calm before the storm?
As soon as my plane landed in Baghdad airport earlier this month, I was struck by how much appeared to have changed since I left in March after more than three years’ reporting in Iraq.
Flights were landing from across the Middle East — Beirut, Amman, Damascus and Dubai — bringing many Iraqis back home after the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday.
The dark, third world airport, packed with Iraqis still fleeing violence when I left seven months earlier, was cleaner, better lit and more efficient. For the first time, guards were using X-ray machines to check incoming bags.
Baghdad itself had also changed.
For a city that used to shut down at 5 p.m., it seemed to be full of life once more. I have never seen it looking more beautiful.
Iraqis were gradually but cautiously returning to their normal lives, spending time at parks and restaurants and going out at night. They seemed less worried about Sunni-Shi’ite conflict.
The mood amongst the Iraqi staff in the Reuters news bureau was different too. Each one has been touched by the violence that swept the country over the past five years and most had moved their families abroad. Many had to stay in shared rooms in the bureau because it was too dangerous to travel to and from work each day.
Now, these rooms are only occupied when employees visit from outside Baghdad.
You can sense hope in the air.
Some people attribute the drop in violence to the anti-al Qaeda Awakening – the Sunni forces that now control the once restive Sunni Arab areas. Others link it to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s defeat of the Shi’ite Mehdi Army militia, loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Many Iraqis say all they wanted from a “new democratic Iraq” was security. But for years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, even some of his opponents have yearned for the stability they felt under his rule.
Could their hopes finally be realised?
Conversations with senior Iraqi officials in the past few days suggest the optimism may be premature.
Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians spoke of “bad news” ahead. They talked of deep political divisions, and assassinations ahead of the provincial elections expected in January.
A senior Sunni Arab official, wishing me a happy Eid last week, said: “I wish I could mean this. Nothing has really changed since you have last visited.”
A Shi’ite official pleaded: “Please be careful, we are expecting lots of problems. Don’t be fooled by the current security situation.”