Slowly but surely, life in Baghdad is improving
January 18, 2009
BAGHDAD — It’s not uncommon for patrols by the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division to be a little late returning home.
Formerly, a delayed arrival would have been an ominous sign that someone hit a roadside bomb or encountered enemy fighters. But recent delays are caused by a problem any rush-hour driver would recognize: Traffic congestion.
The increased number of Baghdad motorists lately is a reflection of how much security has improved, said Col. Joseph Martin, the combat team’s commander.
Stalled lines of cars were once a tempting target for suicide bombers and kidnappers. Driving any significant distance also meant crossing through checkpoints potentially manned by militias that were hostile to other sects. So the lines of cars on the streets, Iraqi and American officials say, mean people are no longer as afraid as they once were.
But the progress also means increased work for the soldiers. During a mission brief before a Thursday patrol, one platoon sergeant outlined multiple routes the convoy could take based on traffic. Units must allow more time to drive through Iraq, which was never a quick process to begin with.
Yet that’s the kind of problem Martin is OK with.
"Traffic means there’s cars, there’s people driving them, there’s fuel available and there’s discretionary cash to buy these cars and the fuel," said Martin, whose brigade oversees the Kadimiyah, Karkh and Mansour districts.
In many ways, Baghdad is taking more steps away from the Wild West town it once was. To be sure, the threat of violence still hangs over everyday life, and with provincial elections looming, targeted assassinations have increased. But in the broader sense, Baghdad is far better off than it was at the height of the sectarian bloodshed.
Across the city, American units are also now removing billboards that ask for information about the most wanted enemy fighters in those areas.
The push is the latest U.S. effort to demonstrate that Baghdad is returning to normalcy, said Lt. Col. John Vermeesch, commander of 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment.
"You don’t see in a normal national capital giant wanted posters," Vermeesch said.
Contractors are tearing down the old wanted posters on the billboards and putting up advertisements with positive messages in their place, although some of the new billboards ask people to call in with tips about anything suspicious.
Martin said removing the wanted posters focused the Iraqi public’s attention on what will happen versus what has happened, in addition to bringing about a sense of normalcy.
"I think (removing the old billboards) was important," he said. "But at this point, I just think it’s important to remind them of the great things going on."
And in another small but telling sign of progress, Baghdad is getting a bit greener. On newly bricked sidewalks from Kadimiyah to Mansour, twiggy infant trees sprout from planters built into the walkways.
Iraqis have a love of greenery at least equal to the Americans. Wealthy homes can often be identified by the condition of their yards alone.
That care lapsed during the dark days of the war. People stayed inside instead of manicuring their lawns.
"When I was here in Baqouba [earlier in the war], no one was cutting their shrubs or anything," Martin said.
Now it seems nearly every city beautification project includes the planting of large numbers of trees, flowers or grass.