Kais Al-Jalili for NPR
Ala'a Ahmad sells Christmas decorations and gag gifts at his store. Like many shopkeepers in Baghdad's popular Karada district, he has started keeping his store open after dark.
Ala'a Ahmad sells Christmas decorations and gag gifts at his store. Like many shopkeepers in Baghdad's popular Karada district, he has started keeping his store open after dark. Kais Al-Jalili for NPR
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Hayat Jabar picks out boots at an open-air market in Karada while her sister-in-law, Rusol Ghassan, and her 2 1/2-year-old niece, Mariam, look on.
Hayat Jabar picks out boots at an open-air market in Karada while her sister-in-law, Rusol Ghassan, and her 2 1/2-year-old niece, Mariam, look on. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
A mechanical Santa plays in the window of Udai Alzubaidy's sundries store in Karada as he straightens his wares.
A mechanical Santa plays in the window of Udai Alzubaidy's sundries store in Karada as he straightens his wares. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
In Iraq, Christians are preparing for Christmas as Shiite and Sunni Muslims observe Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of Sacrifice," this week.
With violence down to the lowest levels since 2005, Iraqis are enjoying the holiday season out in the open. Popular marketplaces in Baghdad are jammed with shoppers — not just during the day, but at night.
The most popular destination is the neighborhood of Karada, despite a car bombing two weeks ago that killed 16 people along its main shopping corridor.
In fact, once you maneuver past the blast walls and Iraqi army checkpoint, Karada "dakhel," or interior, looks like any busy retail corridor during the holidays. Scores of Iraqis — young and old, men and women — come from all across Baghdad. They amble along the sidewalks and pause to window shop — especially at Udai Alzubaidy's perfume store, where a life-size, mechanical Santa plays a saxophone and sways his hips to the beat.
Other visitors peruse piles of clothing and trinkets in open-air stalls, haggling with vendors to score a bargain. Nearby, Naji Salim sharpens long knives to slice grilled lamb for hungry customers at his fast-food stand.
Shopping in Karada at night is something that few Iraqis — let alone an American reporter — would have dared to do a few months ago.
But there are signs that Baghdad remains a city on edge, like the armed Iraqi soldiers who keep close watch for suspicious vehicles and people. On Wednesday, the soldiers were out in force in the shopping district after receiving a report of two women in all-encompassing black abayas wearing explosives vests.
But on another night, the soldiers kept watch from a distance, so as not to disturb the festive crowd. The shoppers didn't appear worried.
Rusol Ghassen, shopping for a coat for her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Mariam, said it was the third night in a row that she had ventured out. She says she feels safe for the first time in years.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the second-highest-ranking U.S. officer in Iraq, says credit for the quiet goes to the American troop surge and Iraqi security forces — and to the growing cooperation of armed factions. Many of them have agreed to stop fighting.
"I spent about 10 hours just driving around Baghdad on my own, and I did see things I had not seen before," he says. "There are indications of signs of return to normalcy. The markets that I saw, both on the east side and West Baghdad were very significant. For the first time, I saw truck after truck after truck with retail items being sold, such as refrigerators, water heaters, air conditioners, heaters — in numbers I'd never seen before."
Shopkeepers in Karada agree that crowds are plentiful. But they complain that few people are actually buying anything. Many, like shop owner Mohammad, 32, say their sales are down compared with last year's holiday season.
"It's bad because of the plunging dollar," he says. "The latest explosion drove away the crowds for a while, too. There's nothing to make me feel like it's a holiday."
Iraqis say that while the value of the dollar is down some 15 percent to the Iraqi dinar, the price of goods has, in many cases, gone up.
Still, most say they are grateful they can go out again.
Trinkets vendor Riyad Jabar says scenes like the one in Karada give him hope that life in Iraq might someday be normal once more.
But he adds that there are far more neighborhoods in Baghdad where few dare to venture outside after dark.