A year on, the question remains: Is the war in Iraq over?
A little over a year ago, then-Baghdad Bureau Chief Dean Yates, my former boss, wrote an entry on this blog entitled ‘Is the war in Iraq over?’
Before he wrote it, Dean went to a famed Baghdad park to take the pulse of ordinary Iraqis, who were then cautiously venturing out to public places for the first time in years, a tentative sign that Iraq was finally emerging from height of the violence unleashed by the 2003 invasion.
For someone who covered the much of worst of the Iraq war — the car bombs, the suicide attacks, the sectarian executions that peaked in 2006 -2007 – from our sand-bagged bunker, it must have been a small miracle to see families dotting Abu Nawas park, a green stretch of trees, swings and benches along the banks of the Tigris.
Last night, I went back to Abu Nawas, named after a poet and bon vivant of the 8th and 9th centuries, to watch Iraqis celebrate Eid, the four-day holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month.
This time, it was a cross between Disney World and Woodstock.
We joined hundreds, if not thousands, of Iraqis as we walked along a path overlooking the river, where a yellow crescent moon gleamed back from the barely-moving water.
Packs of young men in tight T-shirts, their hair slicked back, sat on a railing checking out the other teenagers. There were vendors selling nuts, grilled meat and cotton candy.
Some families had claimed patches of the crowded lawn for picnics and others sat at plastic tables eating freshly baked meat pies. Under a tree, men smoked nargile, the water pipe stuffed with sweet tobacco. Farther on in the darkness, a crowd of men and boys danced to the sound of drums.
We were shoulder-to-shoulder with other revellers as we turned to walk home.
In a city dotted with checkpoints, where uniformed men with AK-47s stand at every corner, I didn’t see one policeman or soldier. There was none of the fear or swallowed resentment we’ve become accustomed to seeing on people’s faces as they hurry down the sidewalk or line up to be frisked.
But were other people thinking, as I was, how easily such festive gatherings can turn into tragedy? Suicide bombers continue to strike at crowded mosques, markets or tribal meetings. It was a remarkably quiet Ramadan, but Iraqi civilians are still unsafe in the most ordinary of situations.
The question remains, 14 months after Dean’s blog, whether or not the Iraq war is over. What will that mean? Is the war over when the world’s attention shifts to another conflict hundreds of miles away? Is the war over when U.S. casualties plummet and it’s suddenly safer for them in Amara than in some American cities? Will national elections in January cement the positive trajectory of the past 18 months, or will they re-ignite violence and undermine hopes for a secure, stable Iraq?
I don’t have a good answer to those questions. I know it would be hard to tell the families of those killed on Aug. 19 – dubbed “Bloody Wednesday” by Iraqis – or the 126,000 U.S. troops still stationed here that the war is over.
Maybe the best response another question. What will feted Abu Nawas, and the whole of Baghdad, look like a year from now?
(Reuters photo by Thaier al-Sudani: Iraqi men celebrate the holiday marking the end of Ramadan in Baghdad)