I lost my luggage on the way to Baghdad.
Yes, it was the holiday season, and no, it wasn't Iraqi Airways (the one that flies through blinding sandstorms) that lost it. It was Delta Airlines, and the luggage disappearance occurred four days before Christmas on a simple direct flight from New York to Amman.
It took eight days of phone calls and e-mails before I saw my bag again. But the shocking thing is that the luggage eventually showed up, safe and sound, in Baghdad, even escaping the airport's notoriously sticky-fingered baggage handlers. It was a small but telling sign that Iraq is indeed entering a new phase, not just in troop levels and casualty counts but also in smaller areas of security. Foreign reporters like me who return to the country can now stress out more about baggage than about roadside bombs on the way home from the airport. (For more travel tips and stories visit time.com/travel.)
To deal with my missing luggage, I went shopping in the capital and picked out new clothes and toiletries. Though the selection was somewhat limited, I ended up with a pair of rhinestone-studded jeans and a pink tracksuit. The fact that our security was willing to let me peruse the shops was a marked change from months before. (See pictures of the revival in Iraq's street life.)
Had I lost the suitcase on my first trip to Iraq eight months ago, as Iraqi and U.S. forces clashed with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, I would have been forced to wear whatever our male Iraqi security guards picked out without me. Last March, I arrived to an onslaught of rockets and mortars fired at the nearby Green Zone, along with retaliatory coalition air strikes and the near constant thunder of helicopter blades overhead. As with other foreign reporters, my movements were always calculated, and I often donned a long black abaya and head scarf. But this time around, I was one of the few women wearing an abaya as I shopped in the relatively liberal city center.
On Jan. 1, the U.S. formally handed control of the Green Zone, the fortified U.S. and Iraqi-government stronghold, back to the Iraqis. The Americans also vacated the compound's ornate Republican Palace Saddam Hussein's jewel, which the U.S. used as its administrative and then diplomatic headquarters throughout the occupation. U.S. soldiers are now technically guests on Iraqi soil under the new U.S.-Iraqi security pact.
"I still hate this place," a soldier told me as I set out to embed with his unit in north Baghdad last week. For many of the soldiers in the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, this is a second or third deployment. Even so, they say it's significantly quieter this time than the last time. Sitting in Baghdad traffic, I watched as the gunner in the MRAP casually tossed a Red Bull out of the turret to an Iraqi pedestrian. The man on the sidewalk caught it as the U.S. soldiers giggled. Later at a dining facility at Camp Liberty, a U.S. base, I was stopped short on my way to the salad bar when I saw the "non-pork grill" a relatively new addition to meet the needs of the increasing number of Iraqis using the U.S. facilities. It is a major step away from the cultural blunders of the post-invasion years.
Iraq is still a war zone, where approximately 9,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 300 U.S. soldiers lost their lives this past year, according to independent monitoring organizations Iraq Body Count and icasualties.org. As the country enters its latest incarnation, it remains difficult to speculate on whether the relative stability will last. What is certain, however, is that Iraq is far more secure than it was two years ago or even six months ago. And I have a recovered suitcase and new pink tracksuit to show for it.