Is The Worst Over In Iraq?

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2009 was the most peaceful year in Iraq for some time. While a spate of recent bombings shows that the capital is still vulnerable, many Iraqis hope the worst sectarian violence is behind them.

GUY RAZ, host:

Two thousand nine was the most peaceful year in Iraq in five years. But three high-profile bombings since August showed that insurgent forces can still hit Baghdad's most heavily guarded institutions. The capital now feels tense again.

But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, Iraqis are hoping that the sectarian strife that nearly tore the country apart is a thing of the past.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Anbar province in western Iraq used to be the center of what the Americans called the Sunni triangle. That's a term almost never heard now, and Iraqis are instead trying to reclaim the past, which they remember without sectarian troubles.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWRENCE: Anbar's Lake Habbaniya is one symbol of the way things used to be. A resort built there by a French company in the 1970s is operating again for the first time since the U.S. invasion. The manager, Hamid Abud(ph), said he mounted an ad campaign on television to let people in Baghdad know that the lake was ready to take in visitors once again, no matter what sect or ethnicity.

Mr. HAMID ABUD (Manager): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: We were touched by the way the local people welcomed back the Shiite visitors from Baghdad, he said, adding that tourism will help revive the economy in war-torn Anbar.

A man who gave his name only as Jamal(ph) picnicked with his family in the garden nearby.

Mr. JAMAL: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Everything's fine here, he said. We traveled from Baghdad with two other Shiite families, and the road was perfectly safe. They're from the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Adamia(ph), which saw horrific violence during the sectarian strife. The recent bombings of government buildings in Baghdad were powerful enough to shake the windows in Adamia. That aside, Jamal says he's confident that Shiites and Sunnis will not fight each other again.

American officials have also seized on the failure of insurgents to revive sectarian fighting.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): That doesn't mean there hasn't been a desire to create that. In fact, I think that's probably the main motive of al-Qaida.

LAWRENCE: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, assessed the situation on a recent visit to Baghdad.

Adm. MULLEN: I'm encouraged by, in these very tragic acts of violence over the many months starting, I think, in August, that there has not been a sectarian outbreak as a result of that.

LAWRENCE: So far, it seems that even Iraq's factional militias have shown no appetite to resume the evictions and massacres of recent years. But some of the current cease fire may be down to the way Baghdad's populations have segregated themselves.

Just south of the Tigris River is the suburb of Dora, where sectarian violence drew clear battle lines, still visible from the bullet marks on the front-line houses. As the Shiite holy day of Ashura approaches, black and green flags mark the Shiite neighborhoods in Dora. The flags stop abruptly where the Sunni parts of the district begin.

These neighborhoods were mixed. Now, they're dotted with empty homes.

(Soundbite of knocking)

LAWRENCE: No one comes to the door of one Shiite home, but this is perhaps the safest part of Dora, and most of the Shiites who fled have now returned.

Mr. IBRAHIM MOHAMMED(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Ibrahim Mohammed comes out of his gate with his grandson to greet a neighbor. In 2006, Mohammed fled the country with his six children because al-Qaida-linked death squads were killing Shiites here. He kept in touch with his neighbor, a Sunni sheikh. And this year, he decided it was safe to return. The two men now stand together on the street without concern, though they both admit to being afraid to enter certain parts of Dora.

Mr. MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: There is no chance of us fighting again, says Mohammed, and he goes on to list the members of his family who've married across sectarian lines. It seems logical and reassuring that family ties would prevent bloodshed. But that was all true before the violence began last time.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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