Baghdad looks so beautiful from the sky, the twists and turns of the Tigris, the bridges and inter-twining highways engineered to perfection make this city so special. I'm normally asleep during take-offs and landings but this time I couldn't stop staring. It looks so peaceful it takes a while for it to sink in that this place has been ravaged by war/terrorism for the last 5 years. It's exactly 20 years to the day of the end of the Iraq-Iran war and its hard to imagine what Baghdad could have been without that war, without Saddam and without the Ba'ath Party.
I arrived to Baghdad just before sunset and from inside the plane the city looked busy with cars all over the place but by the time I got out of the airport it was 8:30pm and the city turned into a ghost town. The only other cars I saw, except for the few exceptions, where military or police. The one thing I immediately noticed was there was a lot less soldiers on the street since the last time I was here 4 months ago. This is a good sign of course, less soldiers means a less tense city and every checkpoint from Baghdad to Najaf was manned by polite soldiers who were upbeat and always trying to crack a joke.
I am used to wearing a seat-belt as soon as I enter any car but decided this was a bad idea in Iraq after I was made fun of by every soldier who saw me. I took it off quickly after a soldier just outside the airport said "It's nice to see someone abiding by the law for a change" because abiding by the law in Iraq is a tell-tale sign that you are a stranger. The soldier just laughed and waved us through.
In Latifiya, and after finding out I had come from London, one of the soldiers leaned against the window and with all seriousness said "People run away from Iraq in the summer and you have come here? Don't you know we are crazy here? Here we kill each other for nothing, so what are you doing here?". I said "London is depressing, cold, cloudy and its always raining so I came here to get some sun". His shifty eyes darted around the car for a few seconds and he then waved us through.
The sun is something you cannot hide away from in Iraq, walking in the streets when its 115 degrees F is like walking into a sauna but worse because you are wearing clothes, every breeze is like a blow-dryer on max heat blowing in your face. I just cant understand how those soldiers stand for hours with all that gear on. At midnight the temperature drops just below 100 degrees F and is the only time you can take a shower because the water isn't as hot, it burns for a few seconds but your skin gets used to the heat. There is electricity around 12 hours a day in Najaf and you can pay around 90,000 ID ($75) a month to get an extra 12 hours from large generators. Even with the electricity the heat is unbearable unless you stay cooped up in the same room for 24 hours.
The security forces present in Najaf have dropped by more than half since April and in general the city feels much safer.