Bombings and casualties are way down; arrests of militants and the number and confidence of the Iraqi security forces are way up. Most of the additional U.S. troops sent to Iraq as part of the surge have gone back home. But how does post-surge Baghdad feel? Over the past four-some years, I've relied on some personal litmus tests to gauge the mood of this city. And by these admittedly unscientific measures, Baghdad feels like it's starting to believe again. Never mind the usual caveats about all that could still go horribly wrong; here's the good news from Iraq:
1. Dog Food Is Back. For the first time in years, pet foods have reappeared on the shelves of our neighborhood convenience store. This is an indicator established by Salah Mahmoud, one of TIME's translators in the Iraqi capital, who told me in the summer of 2003, "Let them start selling dog food at Wardah Supermarket; then I'll know life is getting better." Salah had a German shepherd, and dog food had been an unobtainable luxury during the 12 years Iraq had been under U.N. economic sanctions. (See pictures of life returning to the streets of Iraq.)
Many luxuries long denied, either by sanctions or by the dictator's whim, were suddenly available in the months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Cable TV quickly became ubiquitous, and cell phones soon followed. The shops of Karrada overflowed with big-screen TVs, fridges and air conditioners despite the scarcity of electricity. Upmarket stores suddenly offered such foreign delicacies as chocolates, cornflakes and canned tuna. Then in the summer of 2004, while on a break from Iraq, I got an e-mail from Salah: "Dog food has arrived in Wardah!"
It was a false dawn. The Sunni insurgency was already raging, and Salah would become one of its victims: he and another TIME staffer were hit by a roadside bomb on their way to work. Salah had to be evacuated to Amman, where surgeons saved his life. After a long recovery, he and his family moved to a small town outside Melbourne in Australia. They had to leave their dog behind. And as violence escalated in Baghdad and disrupted supply chains, dog food once again disappeared from shelves in Wardah. Now it's back again, just as Iraqis are emerging from a long nightmare, and there's a palpable optimism. It's my turn to send Salah that e-mail.
2. Thank Heaven for Political Opportunism. Emerging from a recent interview with the Shi'ite politician Hadi al-Ameri, I was greeted by an incredible sight in his waiting room: a Sunni member of parliament and two of his aides, performing their mid-day prayer ritual.
To understand how remarkable that is, consider that Ameri is the leader of the Badr Brigades, the Iran-trained Shi'ite militia affiliated with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shi'ite political party. Sunnis fear and loathe the Badr Brigades almost as much as they do the dreaded Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. While the Mahdi Army is blamed for most of the random street violence during the 2005-07 civil war, many Sunnis believe the Badr Brigades systematically assassinated Sunni politicians and community leaders. (Ameri and other Badr leaders deny this.)
Not long ago, the very mention of Ameri's name would have had Sunni politicians frothing at the mouth. And yet here was a Sunni MP, praying in his waiting room.
The change of heart is politically expedient: with provincial elections due in January, the Sunni parties in parliament face a powerful challenge from influential tribal sheiks in their own community. To counter the challenge of the sheiks' political organization, the established Sunni parties are reaching across sectarian lines for support. Come election day, they may need Ameri's help, especially in constituencies where there's a significant Shi'ite swing vote. For the same reason, the Sunni parties have also flirted with followers of al-Sadr.
Both sides can play the opportunism game, of course. A week later, in Ramadi, I saw tribal sheiks gather to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Status of Forces Agreement he has negotiated with the U.S. A couple of years ago, many of the sheiks were backing the Sunni insurgency and refusing to recognize Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government. Now, Sheik Mohammed al-Hais told me, "We are closer to Maliki than any Shi'ite group."
This may all be cynical politics, but even alliances of convenience can help take the heat off sectarian enmities. When Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis both accuse their politicians of amoral opportunism, that's a kind of unity too.
3. A Gap Is Bridged. The Bridge of the Imams connecting the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya to the Shi'ite district of Kadhamiya was reopened on Nov. 11, and it was rightly hailed by Iraqi politicians as a turning point in sectarian relations, because the bridge had acted as a barometer of ties between the two communities. In August 2005, a stampede by thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims on the bridge left nearly 1,000 dead; hundreds plunged into the Tigris below and drowned. Despite sectarian tensions, many Sunnis in Adhamiya rushed to help rescue survivors. One young man, Othman al-Obeidi, rescued six pilgrims before himself drowning. He was hailed as a hero by both sides.
Within a few months, however, al-Obeidi had been forgotten, as Sunni insurgents fired mortars into Kadhamiya and the Mahdi Army fired back. The bridge was closed, and soon both sides were rewriting al-Obeidi's story: to Shi'ites, he became a myth; to Sunnis, a fool.
Now we've come full circle: al-Obeidi's heroism is again being hailed by both sides, and there's talk of a statue to be erected on the Adhamiya side of the river but paid for by Kadhamiya residents. The Sunni insurgents who once shot at people on the other side have formed an Awakening Council to keep the peace in Adhamiya. On the corniche in Kadhamiya, youngsters shoot pool on a couple of open-air tables. Iraqi police and army units have flushed out the Mahdi Army.
4. Naughty Knickers and Pious Pilgrims. While they controlled the streets of Kadhamiya, the Mahdi Army had imposed a harshly puritanical interpretation of Islam on the residents. Women were required to wear the form-obscuring black cloaks known as abayas. Today, in a sign of the freedom felt in the neighborhood, a storefront displays sexy women's underwear in its windows, just a stone's throw from the great shrine of Imam Kadhim. Its owner told me business was good.
The shrine, with its distinctive pair of golden domes, is one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites, and it draws millions of pilgrims every year, many of them from outside Iraq. The police told me the shrine currently gets 4,000 Iranians a day, and many of them take time to shop for gold jewelery and, presumably, for lingerie.
5. Conspicuous Consumption Is Safe. It used to be hard to tell rich from poor in Baghdad, especially outside the Green Zone. Fear of being kidnapped for ransom prompted many wealthy Iraqis to feign poverty. Living below one's means became an art form: decrepit cars, cheap cell phones, minimalist jewelry.
In the past few months, however, the pretense has been dropped. There are new cars visible on the streets all the time now. Buyers pay in cash, and prices range from $10,000 for a basic sedan to five times as much for a top-of-the-line SUV. My rich Iraqi friends still keep their families in Amman or London, but when in town for business, they feel safe enough to flash their cash.