BAGHDAD – President Bush announced plans on Tuesday to pull 8,000 more combat and support troops out of Iraq by next February, but not all Iraqis are happy about the security situation here.
At Baghdad International Airport a handful of returning Iraqis, who were recently denied residence in Sweden, blamed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for their disappointment. "He visited Sweden and painted too rosy a picture of conditions here in Baghdad. So Sweden is no longer accepting Iraqi applications for asylum, and we were sent back here," said one of the Iraqis at the airport who had been turned away.
To be fair, involuntary repatriation may not be the fate it once was. Baghdad's security has definitely improved. When I was traveling down the road from the airport to the center of the city recently there were fewer checkpoints than during my last visit in June. And the high-speed security convoys escorting important visitors now appear to have blended into the traffic streams. Dozens of shops abandoned by fearful merchants have been reopened and there is a noticeable absence of armed police patrols in the streets.
'Today we can go anywhere'
A trip to a USAID compound in the Mansour area of west Baghdad now takes about 20 minutes compared to an hour in June. The Iraqi government has reopened several key roads in the city, so choking traffic jams, during which you sit in a vehicle hemmed in on all sides by nervous drivers thinking about kidnappings and car bombs, are now just bad memories.
The USAID officials we visited are working on an agricultural program to teach Iraqi farmers more efficient methods of working their land. They spend a lot of time outside Baghdad in the country.
"A year ago there was a sniper taking shots at us every time we left our base," said Brian Conklin, a USAID official. "There were 385 attacks in our area every week. Today we can go anywhere in our 1,300 square miles of territory without a problem."
Another official, Robert Dose, said the improved security situation had already allowed them to increase vegetable yields for Iraqi farmers in their area by 300 percent.
"We've been able to upgrade the infrastructure that allows farmers to get back into production," he said.
Bombers still at large
But as we were leaving the USAID compound, one of our drivers pointed to a blackened area on a street corner just opposite the main gate.
"Car bomb against Ahmed Chalabi here last night," he said. "Six bodyguards killed."
As it turns out, we found out later that Chalabi, a prominent opponent of Saddam Hussein's regime before it was overthrown in 2003, had not been in the convoy targeted by the bombers. He was attending a funeral on the other side of Baghdad and had been about to leave when the mourners insisted he stay for Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast. Chalabi agreed but dismissed his entourage so that they could get home to their families. It was the latest in a series of assassination attempts he escaped purely by chance, and a reminder that not all of Baghdad's bombers have been captured or killed by American and Iraqi forces.
A few days later we met the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who is credited with overseeing the troop surge which stopped the sectarian violence and brought relative calm to Iraq.
"The sectarian violence caused horrific damage. We used to say it tore the very fabric of Iraqi society, and it's heartening now to see some of that actually coming back together," Petraeus told us.
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Petraeus leaves Iraq in a week's time to take over Central Command, which is based in Tampa, Fla. His new assignment will put him in charge of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as another 24 countries in Asia and the Middle East.
After leaving Petraeus' office at the American Embassy we studied U.S. Army notes pointing out that there are now fewer than 200 attacks a month against American and Iraqi targets across Iraq, down from a high of 1,600 attacks per month two years ago.
But when we returned to our bureau we saw on our incident board that there had been 13 attacks recorded that very day. Eleven people had been killed and 35 others wounded in bomb blasts and shooting incidents across the country.
It was a reminder that Iraq is not yet fully secure no matter how safe it feels.