By HAMZA HENDAWI
The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 5, 2007; 4:44 PM
BAGHDAD -- It may be the only train still running in Baghdad.
The ride at the Zawraa park still grinds along a rusty track carrying children wearing party hats and parents in their best outfits.
In most places, such a scene signifies nothing more than a few smiles.
In Baghdad, it's a portrait of a city's troubled soul: People struggling for a moment away from the crushing worries of a place where the evidence of war is everywhere _ markets left in ruin by car bombs, neighborhoods carved up along sectarian lines and armed guards frisking anyone coming to see the vultures and three lions left at the Zawraa zoo.
Far away _ on Capitol Hill in Washington _ the debate over U.S. policies in Iraq is filled with graphs and statistics on everything from civilian casualties to presumed insurgent strength following the troop build-up that began early this year. But perhaps a more accurate measure of where Iraq stands is found in Baghdad's streets, shops and living rooms.
The perceptions of ordinary Iraqis _ about their security, future, aspirations _ are probably the most sensitive gauges of whether the U.S. military and diplomatic strategies are bringing meaningful change.
For the moment, there's a growing sense of accommodation to the current level of violence.
The U.S.-led security crackdown in the capital has reduced attacks and their unpredictability _ fewer big suicide bombings in markets and other public spaces.
Daily life unfolds at a cautious pace and under new rules.
Shops are open. Parks fill up on nice days. People out for a stroll can let their imagination stray far from the war with travel agencies advertising holidays to Malaysia, Turkey and Syria.
But nearly everyone remains bound by sectarian borders in their own city. Shiites stay in their neighborhoods. Sunnis do the same. The reordering of once-mixed Baghdad into separate, self-guarded enclaves is nearly complete _ which perhaps has contributed to the downturn in violence as much as the troop surge.
"Business is good," smiled Hadi Qassim, the manager of Olive Branch, a men's clothing store in the mostly Shiite district of Karradah _ a frequent target of bombings and shelling blamed on Sunni extremists.
Qassim's suits, made in Turkey, fetch $250. Shoes from Cyprus sell for $80 a pair. His clients, he said, are mostly businessmen and Iraqis with well-paid government jobs.
"We Iraqis put dressing smartly right after eating well on our list of life's priorities," he joked.
But there's a hint of truth. Many in Baghdad _ perhaps out of resilience or denial _ have welcomed the drop in violence by satisfying their hunger for any taste of normal life.
In Karradah, outdoor markets are busy. Children gobble ice cream in the summer heat and families munch on kebabs in outdoor restaurants. Merchants display home appliances made in South Korea, China and Iran, Coke and Pepsi bottled in Saudi Arabia or Jordan and dried Turkish fruits.
But driving anywhere brings a different picture.
Iraqi army and police man checkpoints, hundreds of checkpoints _ some at 100-yard intervals in parts of the city. Messages on giant billboards appeal for people to reclaim their city.
"130 for the sake of Iraq," declares one billboard, referring to a phone number intensely publicized by the government for anonymous tips on suspicious individuals or activity.
"Forgive and tolerate for the sake of a united Iraq," exhorts another message that speaks to sectarian tensions.
"All we want is security. It doesn't matter who provides it," said Umm Hamza, a widow with two college-age children. She describes her neighborhood, mostly Sunni Azamiyah district, as a "humiliating prison" after U.S. military surrounded it with concrete walls in the spring to keep out militias.
"I want my children to finish their education and get jobs," she said.
Others just want to get out. An estimated 2 million Iraqis have already left the country, mostly for neighboring Syria and Jordan, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
"My mind is made up to leave Iraq," said Atallah Zeidan, a Shiite father of two who jointly owns a second-hand book store in Baghdad's old quarter. "I just don't know where to go and how to go."
Business has been almost flat since the book market was bombed in March, according to Zeidan. Most of the bookstores gutted by the bomb and huge fire never reopened.
"Hardly anyone is buying books now," said Zeidan, a philosophy graduate who was briefly abducted in December by suspected Shiite militiamen in what he believes to be a case of mistaken identity.
"I come here, sell little or perhaps nothing and shop on the way home. Once I am home, I never leave until the next day. It's like a prison."
In another market, Samer Sami talked about how he and his family used to visit parks and restaurants until about two years ago when Baghdad's bloodshed spiked. Now, the 34-year-old merchant said their only outings are to visit his wife's family once a month.
"I have a wife and three small children," said Sami, who sells children's clothes in Shourjah, Baghdad's largest and oldest market. "How can I put their lives at risk by going out beyond what's necessary?"
Political leaders still can't reinforce the idea that Baghdad could be moving toward better days. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has made a few forays onto the streets _ all carefully scripted and under intense security. Officials race into the fortress-like Green Zone in armed convoys.
U.S. military commanders and even one American presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, paid short visits to outdoor markets, but also under stringent security that included helicopters flying low.
"I cannot go anywhere without a convoy of as many as 10 cars," said Asmaa al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab lawmaker who taught Islamic studies at a Baghdad university before entering politics.
"Even in my own neighborhood, I cannot go out without at least two bodyguards," said al-Dulaimi who has a 20-man security team she hand-picked but whose pay comes from the state.
Power and water outages _ that can stretch up to several days _ feed the sense of helplessness even if the tallies in Washington show a drop in attacks in Baghdad.
"We have no electricity, no water, no gas and no nothing," said Subeiha Abed Ali, a 42-year-old housewife with five children in the Shiite Sadr City district. "We use an electric pump to get water, but if we have no electricity we can only get water using our small power generator, but we have no money to buy fuel for that generator."
Her husband, a day laborer, makes about $15 a day _ if he's lucky to get work at all.
At Baghdad's famous al-Lazikiyah restaurant in the once popular, but now virtually deserted, Arasat neighborhood, a waiter surveyed the lunch crowd of four people.
"They've ruined our lives," said Hussein Abdul-Wahed.
He did not say who "they" were. It's not necessary. It's Baghdad parlance for anyone with power or firepower.
It was difficult to tell whether the restaurant was open even when standing just outside. There's a reason for that. No restaurant in Baghdad wants to draw undue attention.
They have been frequent bombing targets. The owners of successful ones are blackmailed by crime gangs demanding protection money. In the case of al-Lazikiyah, two young members of the owning family were kidnapped last year.
They were released after a ransom was paid and the family fled to Syria soon after.