What comes to mind when you think of Baghdad? A year ago, the Iraqi capital was a scene of explosions, military checkpoints and armed men roaming the streets. Baghdad has suffered numerous attacks and security problems in the past several years.
I have been reporting from here extensively since 2011, and have witnessed the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), which captured huge swaths of the country three years later.
Putting aside the American occupation and invasion for a moment, the last few years have been incredibly violent for the city. However, I notice a marked difference as I arrive back on an assignment.
The city’s endless checkpoints have gone down and the streets seem busier than ever.
The last attack in Baghdad was in May this year, when a huge car bomb ripped through the shopping district of Karrada, killing scores. It was immediately claimed by ISIL.
I visit a small cafe in Karrada that had been hit by suicide bombs in the past, to find out what Iraqis think of the current security situation.
Karrar, a car trader, and his friends sit out on the street smoking shisha and generally mocking each other. In between puffs on his shisha pipe, he tells me he feels confident Baghdad is changing.
“The city feels safer, but it’s not just here. We are doing trade with people in Mosul, we are seeing the streets get busier. This is all to do with the fact that Iraq defeated ISIL,” he says as his friends nod in agreement. “But there are still issues. There’s still a lot of corruption and the rule of law needs to be firmer, but we feel confident things are changing for the better.”
For Iraqi authorities, bringing an end to the almost daily wave of suicide bombings was one of the reasons they needed to defeat ISIL. The armed group now controls a few isolated villages on the Iraqi border with Jordan and is on the run after an intense campaign by Iraqi security forces, Shia-led militias, Kurdish Peshmerga and US-led coalition air strikes.
It’s had an effect. Bahar Janabi is a retired engineer who has brought his family for a picnic at Al Zawhra Park. All around him, Iraqi families play on the swings and roundabouts, and the amusement park with its giant ferris wheels gets ready to open.
“I have not been to this park in 15 years. Today is our first time here. I always felt trapped in my neighbourhood before, but now I am here and can breathe the air and see people enjoying themselves,” he said.
I ask him why he thought today was a good time to come back to the park. With a good degree of pride, he says: “The government united Iraqis in the fight against ISIL. We won. There feels like there is a new life in Baghdad.”
The park buzzes with noise and laughter as I walk around and meet another family. Three generations of Ismail’s family surround her. Young girls and older women share a picnic blanket.
“There are fewer explosions. Less sectarianism. It was high during the ISIL times, but people have realised that no good comes from sectarianism and now people are more accepting of each other. Look around you. We are Shia, Sunni and Christian here,” she says, shielding her eyes from the sun.
The park is certainly full of Iraqis of all hues, but a police checkpoint at the entrance reminds that Baghdad still carries the scars of violence. To keep this fragile peace, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has a real challenge on his hands. He must build on the success of the anti-ISIL operation and also unite Iraq, reaching out, in particular, to the Sunni community which has long felt disenfranchised.
He also has to deal with Iraqis who joined ISIL. In Karrada I asked Karrar and his friends what should be done about Iraqi ISIL fighters. The prompt answer was: “execution”. Another one was: “justice”.
There is still a lot of anger towards ISIL here. Managing that will be key, and dealing with the root causes of the rise of ISIL even more important.
One of the reasons ISIL was able to take a hold in Iraq was because Sunni youth felt they were being ignored by the Shia-led government, under the then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Can Abadi change that? He certainly hopes so, but a bomb attack in the nearby city of Abu Ghraib on November 8 was a reminder that there is still a long way to go.
Follow Imran Khan on Twitter @Ajimran