Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Saturday, 28 March 2009

Iraqi hopes of better days ahead

In Iraq, suicide bombers continue to kill and injure many people, but there is also evidence that parts of life are slowly improving for Iraqis, as Hugh Sykes discovered when he travelled to Baghdad.

Statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled in 2003
Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003

Just under six years ago, after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime at the end of the 2003 war, which had lasted barely three weeks, Baghdad at night was, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, Bible-black.

A capital city of seven million people, and I looked up and could see the stars, clearly making out the shape of the Plough, or the Big Dipper as it is called in America.

The only light came from a full moon, car headlamps, and the flames on charcoal barbeques, flaring up when the fat dripped onto the coals.

A few businesses had generators. A pharmacy down the road from my hotel shone out in the dark, a great pool of light spilling on to the pavement and the street.

Six years on, Baghdad is lighter at night, but the electricity supply has not been sorted out yet. There is more supply, but not nearly enough.

For several years, suicide attacks here were so common they became routine

There is also much more demand, because thousands of people here now have air conditioners, fridge-freezers and washing machines - and they did not before.

So traders who sell petrol generators make a good living.

Bomb attacks

Shortly before the 2003 war began, a friend warned that - if the invasion went ahead - it would be followed by "such a wave of suicide bombings that you would not believe it".

Map of Iraq showing Baghdad and Jalawla

My friend was right.

For several years, suicide attacks here were so common they became routine.

Mike, an American sergeant, pointed out one of the ironies of the so-called war on terror.

Crunching across the blood and broken glass of a cafe where four people had just been killed by a suicide bomber, he told me: "I feel remorse. This is only happening because we're here. Violence breeds violence."

Now, suicide bombing is even used as material for macabre jokes.

There is an animated video doing the rounds on mobile phones here. A group of dogs are sat in a circle, having a chat. A suicide cat walks into the middle of the circle and blows them all to pieces.

Violent downturn

That is pretty much what happened at a funeral this week.

In Jalawla, a town north-east of Baghdad, a dense crowd of mourners were in a tent offering their condolences to the bereaved family when a man among them detonated a suicide vest, killing more than two dozen people in what onlookers described as "a huge ball of fire in the night".

Fifty people were also injured. And "injured" is an inadequate word for the wounds that suicide bomb survivors have to endure.

Earlier this month, in Baghdad, two other suicide bombers killed nearly 70 people. Horrific events.

But the "trend", as statisticians say, is down. The estimate for civilian deaths for January and February this year combined is 300.

In just one month in 2006, more than 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed.

Warm welcome

But it is more peaceful here, at a price.

Iraqis sitting at Laith's Cafe in Baghdad
"This is beautiful Baghdad again," one cafe owner told the BBC

Many Baghdad neighbourhoods - including busy city centre districts - are an intimidating maze of concrete blast walls, overlooked by watchtowers and with access controlled by checkpoints.

Despite that, though, the capital city does feel more relaxed, and people are much more wiling to be interviewed, give their names for radio interviews, even appear on TV and voice their opinions for the BBC.

Until recently, interviewees often feared reprisals if they were seen to be talking to Westerners.

I spent nearly an hour one day at Laith's cafe in a calm, mixed district of Baghdad.

It is getting better here, but it is too early to say that it is irreversible

When we arrived, camera and all, Laith Hammoudi al Amiri the owner gave us an effusive welcome and immediately provided small cups of delicious Turkish coffee.

He spoke passionately about the Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki, describing him as the "hero" who had brought peace back to the city.

Withdrawal worries

Laith truly believes the bad times are behind him. But as he said, "This is beautiful Baghdad again," he struggled to finish the sentence. His eyes welled up and a tear rolled down his cheek.

His sister and his aunt both died in bomb explosions in another neighbourhood. The rest of his family are taking temporary refuge in London.

And only a year ago, just across the road from Laith's cafe, two bombs which exploded within 10 minutes of each other killed 68 people, and injured more than 100.

It is getting better here, but it is too early to say that it is irreversible.

And one of Laith's customers, a local businessman called Moafaq al Shmary, is deeply uneasy at the proposed withdrawal of American troops over the next two-and-a-half years.

He believes "the bad people", as he put it, are simply waiting for the Americans to leave, and then resume their attacks.

But the official line, which I have heard from a very senior member of the multinational force in Iraq, is that the recent suicide and bomb attacks are what he calls "spikes", not a return to the extreme violence which used to characterise Baghdad.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 March, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service

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