In baghdad, iraqis embrace return to normalcy, with eye on its fragility – gas upper stomach

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?”

“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.

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.

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.

“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.