|Iraqi students at Baghdad University this week. The decision by some women to shun the Islamic head cover is one sign of growing confidence in the past year's security gains. (Hadi Mizban/ Associated Press)|
Signs appear of more relaxed Baghdad
Lifestyle changes point to waning of strife, extremists
BAGHDAD - Engineering student Haifaa Salman has discarded the Islamic head cover she started wearing two years ago after militants threatened to "punish" her if she kept showing up at college with her hair uncovered.
"I was forced to wear it," the 22-year-old says, recalling the day in 2006 when two men on a motorbike stopped her outside campus to deliver the threat. But, she adds, "It's different now. Life is normal again. College women wear what they please. The extremist groups are gone."
The decision by some women to shun the Islamic head cover, or hijab, is just one of the signs that Baghdad residents are growing increasingly confident in the past year's security gains.
Children with backpacks can be seen walking to school. Sidewalk cafes remain open after dark. Families stroll through parks in the sunset.
But after five years of violence, many people are hesitant.
"Things are much better now," said Ziad Mohammed, a 49-year-old government employee who lives in Karkh, a mainly Sunni Arab district on the west bank of the Tigris.
"But fear is still inside me," he added. "I want to get rid of it. Maybe it will happen next year."
For now, Mohammed continues to escort his children to school and picks them up because he fears they could be kidnapped.
Baghdad remains a very dangerous place, and much of the capital looks like a city at war.
Giant billboards appeal for information to help arrest militants accused of "crimes against the Iraqi people," with grainy images of fugitives, mostly bearded men in their 20s and 30s.
"I will always be here," declares a reassuring message on other billboards depicting an Iraqi Army soldier towering over two boys in the background.
Miles of concrete blast walls and dozens of fortified checkpoints dissect the city. Some neighborhoods remain almost entirely walled off, and sectarian hatreds that boiled over into a bloodbath in 2006 and early 2007 simmer below the surface.
A cautious Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejects calls to remove the blast walls, which have helped to curtail violence.
"We will not take that risk," he said this month. "It can be a very costly gamble. They will stay until we are satisfied that we have total control over security."
He is not the only one skeptical about the durability of the drop in violence in Baghdad - overall attacks dropped to about 100 last month, compared with nearly 650 during September last year, according to the US military.
"I don't want to remove a barrier and find out later that I had done so prematurely," said Colonel Mark Dewhurst, the US Army brigade commander in charge of most of Rusafa, the mainly Shiite half of the city on the eastern bank of the Tigris.
Even some of the women who are doing without the hijab fear the militants. They take the head cover off only in certain neighborhoods.
The secular look of liberal-minded women has not escaped notice.
"The clothes of female university students these days are shameful and more revealing than party dresses," Sheik Muhannad al-Moussawi said in a Friday prayer sermon in Baghdad's Sadr City district.