As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.
Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.
When will the sectarian divides of the past two years heal? I asked Ahmad Chalabi yesterday (transcript here):
HH: Dr. Chalabi, will religious minorities be protected there? Will Christians, for example, be able to return, and Shia be able to live aside Sunni and Kurd?
AC: The answer is yes. The past forty years are not an indication of how Iraq would look like, because these communities lived with each other, including the Jewish community, up to 1960, for centuries. There were problems, but there was nothing similar to what had happened now. Everybody is sort of startled by the extent of the cruelty and the destruction that had taken place, and everybody’s pulling back from the abyss at this time. Yes, the answer is that Iraqi communities can live with each other, and the Christians can return. There are still many, many Christians in Iraq. It’s only in certain communities that they have been threatened. And…
HH: Will they be able…how long will it take to heal from that year and a half of bloodletting?
AC: I would say five years would be ample time. Iraqis get angry very quickly, but they also are ready to forgive, and within the tradition of the society, to make peace and accommodation quickly. And this is something that is socially prevalent in Iraq, and there are mechanisms to do so. And in fact, they’re being put into place now.
I also asked about the prospects of democracy taking root in an Arab country:
HH: [A] lot of people don’t think the Arab world is ready for democracy. I dispute that, as does our mutual friend, Christopher Hitchens. We think parliamentary democracy can take root and grow there. And by the way, Hitch said to say hello to you. What do you say to the Americans who say Arabs just can’t do democracy?
AC: I think they are misguided and ignorant of the reality and the conscience of the people. Hitchens is right. Arabs are capable of democracy. And there is nothing in the Arab world…that I would remind everyone that both Iraq and Egypt had parliamentary governments for half a decade in the early 20th Century. And it was only the intervention of the military that disrupted this process, and produced dictatorships with the consequent social conflict in the country. And I believe Arabs can have democracy, and can handle democracy. In Iraq, we have a democracy in Iraq now, only the Parliament is not doing a good, and the parliamentarians are not the best. But we actually have democracy, and people await on laws for the Parliament to enact, and there are things which are legal and not legal, according to the laws in our constitution. And I think this, it’s very difficult to dislodge this from Iraq now, despite the yearning of some for coup de tats and military interventions, which will not be realistic in Iraq now.