As the sun sets over the Jadriya bridge in central Baghdad , groups of young men jostle each other, laughing wildly on the sidewalk; their cars parked in a line that stretches from one side of the Tigris River to the other. In a country now in its fifth year of war, the sight may be unexpected. But perhaps more startling is what they're drinking: beer. Local residents say that sort of activity hasn't occurred here in public since the first year of the war now looked upon nostalgically as the year before life really got bad.
Nearby in Qadisiya district, tables of older men crowd the sidewalk of a cafe, smoking water pipes and socializing. In Harithiya, the coils of barbed wire on a patch of grass have been tossed aside, and a group of school-age boys now play soccer in its midst; on the same street, a cluster of teenage girls stand, giggling together under a street lamp which, miraculously, is working. By day, the affluent Karada district bustles with life. Old storefronts their glass once blown out by explosions and now replaced display grandiose chandeliers for sale, dripping in crystal.
Indeed, according to a new Pentagon report, Iraq's violence has hit a four-year low, and the country has made significant progress in establishing stability. But will it last? Or does the situation conform more to a report out of the Government Accountability Office? That one suggests that this period of calm, like others before it, is just a momentary blip.
A week ago, a car bomb hit Harithiya, the same neighborhood where tonight the boys played soccer. The young men drinking beer on the Jadriya bridge were targeted in 2004 by religious extremists. Now they're back, but their presence is less an indication of improved safety than it is of the fatalistic attitudes now so prevalent among Iraq's youth, says one resident.
The Iraqi government and U.S. military have hailed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's latest military initiative in Amara, which more than a week in has yet to see a shot fired. But the peace seems alarmingly tenuous. Indeed, anger is rippling among Maliki's rivals, the Sadrists, over what they see as unlawful arrests of their followers during the campaign.
"I think the situation is still very fragile," said Talal Ahmed Said, a political writer in Baghdad. "It's possible for any explosion to happen at any time." He thinks the Amara campaign is a sham. "They announced [Amara] a week before [it happened], so all members of the [radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's] Mahdi Army left. After a month they could come back, and likewise in Mosul and Basra."
On Wednesday wire services reported clashes in Nasiriyah, a southern Iraqi city known for power struggles between the Mahdi Army and militias tied to Maliki's party. And in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in east Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to restore order over the past month, the bombing of a city council building Tuesday reinforced the impression of just how volatile the area still is. The blast left 10 people dead, three of whom were U.S. government employees.
Though a sense of calm has settled across some rural areas, where Sunni Awakening Groups have chased out insurgents, many Iraqis fear it's only temporary. And the Sadrists, who have so far cooperated in Maliki's Amara campaign, say their relationship with the government is still far from friendly.
A construction worker in Sadr City says his life has changed little, despite the influx of Iraqi troops earlier this month. "It's the same situation as before. The Mahdi Army seized anyone who worked with the Americans or the state. Now the Iraqi army arrests innocents too," the man, who goes by Abu Hussein, told TIME. "The government promised it would rebuild. But we get nothing... They are not making things easier for us."
Still, some are more optimistic. Though the peace is fragile, says the political writer, Baghdad has gotten safer in the past year, so much so that he is moving his grandson back from Suleimaniya to attend high school in the capital. But the Americans are failing to create a democracy, he warned. "Democracy is like a small plant. It needs to grow in the appropriate conditions and appropriate soil. The Americans have applied democracy but not in the right conditions and not in the right media," he said.
There is no disputing that a snapshot of Baghdad on some days reveals a country on the upswing. In fact, almost all would agree that it's safer today than it was at the height of sectarian violence in 2006. But with security gains from one day to the next still paper thin at times, it is difficult to conclude that this period represents progress that will last. More likely, it's just another dip in the roller coaster.