BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 16, 2009 -- For Americans, getting in the car and driving wherever you want is something pretty much taken for granted, but not in Iraq, where for years the roads have been plagued with roadside bombs, unofficial checkpoints run by death squads and a whole cast of bandits and kidnappers.
But this year we felt things had changed, and so we got in our cars and drove from Baghdad to Kerbala, a major Shiite pilgrimage city 65 miles south of the capital.
We were not entirely sure how safe it would be when we set out, but after driving through some of the 24 checkpoints on the road, we quickly relaxed. We stopped to talk to people on the way, and none seemed at all anxious about security or were amazed that foreigners would be driving on the highway.
When we got to Kerbala -- four hours later, after passing through all those checkpoints -- we met a friend for lunch as casually as if there had never been a war at all.
It was the most remarkable evidence we found that things have really changed in Iraq, a country where 84 percent of the people now say they feel safe in their neighborhoods, according to the latest ABC News/BBC/NHK poll. That's double what it was two years ago, and 60 percent of people expect things to improve further next year.
When we walked around the streets of Baghdad and other cities and towns we visited, it felt as if a dark cloud of fear that Iraqis had been living under for the past few years had been lifted.
Certainly there are still some bombings and attacks in Iraq, but they no longer condition peoples' lives the way they did. More Iraqis now say that the economy, rather than security, is their greatest concern.
In the southern port city of Basra we found a hospital where 8 percent of the patients are coming from overseas -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Dubai -- an extraordinary turnaround. Since last year, when the militias were chased out of Basra, shipping has increased by 300 percent at the port.
Iraqis Trade Violence for Community
In the north we found many Christian families who had fled the violence in Baghdad over the past few years -- they have settled in old Christian towns near the Turkish border. But some of these Christians are already thinking of returning to Baghdad, as they see security has improved.
The large majority of Iraqis seem to have realized that change can come about peacefully, not by violence. After the fourth round of elections passed off without any serious incidents, 64 percent of Iraqis now say democracy is the best system of government, turning away from previous preferences for strongman rule or an Islamic state.
The country still has many problems -- apart from lingering outbreaks of violence, there are still shortages of electricity and water, and corruption is rampant. But after six years of war, Iraq is finally starting to move toward a life that feels normal.