Baghdad today: war and peace

Students lined up for security checks, while sprinklers watered the grass on nearby median strips. In another neighborhood across the Tigris River, streets were deserted, blocked by mounds of dirt or concrete barriers.

Such is today's Baghdad - a mix of the quest for some semblance of a normal life amid the raw struggle just to survive war and economic hardships.

"Things have improved in one respect only. We have fewer bombs, but everything else is going from bad to worse," Qassim Uraibi, a baker and father of five from Sadr City, said of the joint U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown that began almost seven months ago.

America's top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified Monday before Congress about the unpopular Iraq war.

Petraeus said last winter's buildup in U.S. troops - there are at least 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at present - had met its military objectives "in large measure" and that he envisions the withdrawal of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer.

Their testimony could decide the future of the U.S. mission in Iraq, but the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to play down its significance, with officials arguing that Iraq's future cannot be determined by reports, deadlines or political benchmarks.

Addressing parliament Monday, al-Maliki made no mention of the testimony, saying only that his country still needed troops of the U.S.-led coalition to stay on in Iraq because Iraqi forces were not yet ready to take over responsibility for security from them.

On Tuesday, a government statement read by National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie welcomed the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, saying it dealt with the situation in Iraq with "transparency" and thanked the U.S.-led coalition for their "great sacrifices."

The government's mixed signals on the testimony were reflected in the views of Iraqis.

"I am eager to hear what Crocker and Petraeus have to say," said Ihsan Mohammed, a 48-year-old retired teacher from the eastern Baghdad Shaab district.

"Most Iraqis are despairing and we are like a drowning man who wants to hold on to anything to survive," he said before the two officials spoke to Congress.

But Mustapha Abdul-Razak, a former officer in the Saddam Hussein-era army and a Sunni, said the testimony amounted to nothing more than "empty talk."

"It will not change anything," he said. "The Americans are experimenting with our lives."

On the day Petraeus and Crocker gave their testimony, a tour of Baghdad revealed mosaic-like conditions, with some neighborhoods appearing to tenuously cling to normalcy, while others showed the scars of conflict.

"Things have undoubtedly improved," said Umm Mustapha, a 45-year-old mother of five from western Baghdad. "You can see it on people's faces. We are going out more. We feel safer."

In the mainly Shiite districts of Karradah and Jadriyah, the sprinklers came on shortly after 8 a.m. to water the grass on street medians. Elsewhere in the city, workers unloaded tons of soil to fill newly constructed traffic islands. Bands of young street sweepers in bright yellow shirts toiled on the dusty streets.

"Your city can be more beautiful. It's time for cleaning and beautifying," said the message on a giant billboard. "Let peace prevail," said another one.

Students headed to Baghdad University's main campus in Jadriyah lined up outside the gate to have security guards search them. Groups of workers clamored around food stands, eating a breakfast of falafel or kebabs. Others sat on sidewalks waiting for a day's work, and a wage.

Hawkers, taking advantage of the city's chronic traffic congestion, sold motorists cold sodas, paper tissues, plastic flowers and, curiously, Halloween masks.

The atmosphere changed dramatically across the river in the west bank known as Karkh, a mainly Sunni Arab area hard hit by the sectarian violence sweeping the city since a major Shiite shrine was bombed in February 2006. The attack is blamed on Sunni militants.

On the Jadriyah bridge, two U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles dashed against incoming traffic, forcing motorists to swerve to the right to get out of harm's way. On the highway heading south, the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Sadiyah bore the scars of the sectarian violence.

Street after street looked deserted, their entrances blocked by mounds of dirt or concrete barriers. One street visible from the highway was blocked by a heap of trash.

Two mosques that residents say belonged to the Sunnis flew Shiite banners.

Further south, the mainly Sunni district of Dora, which had until recently been among the city's most dangerous areas, was separated from the highway by a wire fence. Flood lights facing the neighborhood are fixed atop the fence at short intervals, an arrangement that's designed to prevent insurgents from planting roadside bombs under the cover of darkness.

In the Yarmouk district, also in Karkh, motorists who crossed into the opposite side of the road to avoid traffic congestion were met with the wrath of a young Iraqi army soldier, who first pointed his assault rifle at them and then menacingly fired in the air to send them back.

In the northern Kazimiyah district, home to the shrines of two of Shiism's 12 imams, visitors underwent three body searches before they reached the ornate site.

Once inside, men, women and children appeared to bask in the spiritual serenity of the complex, sheltered from what many residents now see as Baghdad's madness.

Men and women prayed on the cool marble floor, tearfully held on to the tombs of the two imams and read prayer books available free of charge in Arabic and Farsi. Others just sat peacefully, enjoying the cool air and the tranquility of the place.

Some posed for group photos on the marble plaza surrounding the shrine. Some families picnicked joyfully in the shade.

But a look at the sky above was all the visitors needed to do to be reminded of where they were - two U.S. Apache gunships hovered menacingly just to the west.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova