We knew from the moment we arrived that something had changed. Our flight didn't get in until midnight because of a sandstorm, and Rick and I were resigned to spending the night on the floor of the airport. Curfew in Baghdad has been lifted, but we still didn't think it would be possible to get a taxi so late, and the Iraqi journalist working with us wasn't willing to come pick us up until daylight.
But to our surprise, there were taxis, and there was even another flight that landed later than ours. We arrived at the hotel after 1 am, and were shocked to see restaurants still open and people out on the street. People had told me Baghdad was safer, but after the terror of the last two years, I was loathe to believe it.
We began working the next morning, and have hardly stopped since. We've been able to shoot more in the last three days than we could have in a week a year ago. There are actually bars and and at least one "nightclub" open in the city. When we asked the owner, who opened the club two weeks ago, what had changed, he smiled: "No Jeish al-Mehdi."
We've spent most of the last three days in Sadr City, the Jeish al-Mehdi's base, and it is true they've gone to ground. The Sadr office, which is normally packed with people looking for assistance or offering support, has been spookily empty.
It's not hard to see why the militia has disappeared. The buildings along front line along which the US military constructed a wall across the southern portion of Sadr City has been almost entirely decimated — the militia would have been suicidal to try to fight. Further, Sadr has been the foremost voice in calling for a timetable for US troops, which has recently become the Iraqi government's primary demand for the upcoming status of forces agreement with the US military — politically, he is as strong as he has ever been, and his followers still stand to do well in provincial elections in November.
Friday prayers in Sadr City in the morning evidenced support for the cleric, and before the prayers, worshipers pulled down part of one of the other barriers that have been built in the city.
But for the moment, many Baghdadis are reveling in the militia's disappearance. As one friend of mine put it, Sadr City is "now like zoo." He smiled as he said it, pointing out the liquor shops that have appeared all over downtown. The safety also comes at the cost of thousands of police, so many that anywhere in the world, such a presence would make one nervous. But in Baghdad, it means a sense of normality. It is now claimed the there are 1 million Iraqi police and military in the country, which would mean that there is at least one policeman or soldier for every 30 people. Add to this that many neighborhoods have simply literally been walled off, and you get an idea of what "stability" means. Plus a US/Iraqi prison population of at least 50,000 people.