Brutalised Iraqi capital begins to breathe again

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BAGHDAD, Nov 10 (Reuters) Likaa Haider is doing something she hasn't done in a long time -- hoping. Like many others in Baghdad she is praying that the signs of life she sees returning to her city represent more than just a lull in the killing.

The 21-year-old is a law student at Mustansiriya University, where bombings killed 70 people, mostly students, in January.

''Many things have been changed in Baghdad. I now have hope in the future,'' she said.

Across the city there are signs of change, from restaurants and shops doing brisk trade and people on the streets late at night, to residents returning to Haifa Street, whose high-rises were a major battleground for al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias.

But Baghdad residents are still wary.

Theirs is a brutalised city, where roadside bombs turned streets into minefields, death squads roamed with impunity, kidnapping and killing, and suicide bombers sowed carnage.

Like a car crash victim in a coma, the city shut down. Life was put on hold. Baghdad's traumatised residents avoided public places, locking their doors and emptying the streets after dark.

Shorja market, the city's main centre for wholesale goods, was the scene of a multiple car-bombing in February that killed at least 71 people and wounded 165.

A visit to the market this week found people crowding the narrow passageways between stalls selling everything from brightly patterned cloth to fruit and vegetables.

''You can see the change. People feel safe to come here and shop,'' said cloth-seller Shaker Shnishal.

ETHNIC CLEANSING The Interior Ministry says violence in Baghdad is down 70 percent since the end of June, while Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, the deputy US commander in Iraq, said last week that a drop in attacks in Iraq over the past four months ''represents the longest continuous decline in attacks on record''.

The downturn in violence has been attributed to a major U.S.

military build-up, a more aggressive strategy towards al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias, and Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's order to his Mehdi Army militia to freeze their activities.

Others say violence has declined because areas have been ethnically cleansed and more than a million people displaced since the wave of killing erupted in February 2006.

''Areas that have become homogenised, where there are no longer people from mixed ethnicities, are not seeing the same displacements that were evident in 2006 because there simply are not any more people that can be targeted to displace,'' said Dana Graber from the International Organization of Migration.

Graber said displacement in the capital had slowed because of improved security, but the number of displaced still exceeded the number of returnees.

MORE WEDDINGS Haifa Street, a thoroughfare that runs along the west bank of the Tigris River and cuts through the heart of the city, was the scene of fierce fighting in January, when US helicopters rocketed high-rise apartment blocks to oust gunmen.

Now, people are returning to apartments that were used as hideouts for militants. Wet clothes can be seen hanging from washlines on balconies of buildings scarred by bullet holes, and at night the street is lit by new solar-powered lights.

Taking bags of vegetables from his car in a parking lot in Haifa Street, Azad Fahmi, 37, a restaurant owner, pauses to reflect on what brought him back to the apartment he had fled.

''I heard about the improved security in Baghdad on TV and I was persuaded by friends to return,'' he said.

In New Baghdad, a Shi'ite district in eastern Baghdad, studio photographer Ali Muhsin, 29, is taking wedding pictures of a newly married young couple while their relatives dance on the pavement outside and hoot their car horns.

''The number of weddings has tripled since Eid,'' he said, referring to the Muslim holiday that marked the end of Ramadan.

In Shula in northwestern Baghdad, night has fallen, but its streets are still alive with people and cars. Children play ping-pong on tables set up on a street median, groups of young men smoke waterpipes, and restaurants are doing good business.

''In the past we used to shut our shop after sunset,'' said Abu Mohammed, sitting at the cashier's desk in his restaurant.

''It is 8 pm now and you can see the shop is packed.'' But Joost Hiltermann, an Istanbul-based Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, warns that what Iraqis are witnessing could be a temporary phenomenon unless their feuding political leaders reach a political accommodation.

''In the absence of a political deal, sustaining this over a long time will become difficult,'' he said.

REUTERS JT ND0840

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