BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 28, 2008— -- In Baghdad's Sadr City today, once again, street vendors line the sidewalk with colorful shirts and shoes. Vegetable markets, once again, have fresh limes and produce. Family stores, once again, are back in business.
And in the local Ibn al Balad hospital, no more war wounds.
"There are no injured people in this hospital," says Jabber Shanshal, an Iraqi nurse, drawing a stark contrast with the situation more than two months ago, when heavy fighting took place in the Shiite suburb of almost three million people.
The residents of Sadr City have been longtime followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his 60,000-strong Mahdi militia. He and his fighters staunchly oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq and have frequently targeted U.S. troops across the country.
But all that has changed. Last week, al Sadr's representatives and the main Shiite political party here signed a cease-fire agreement.
And at sunrise on May 20, a legion of Iraqi soldiers cautiously marched into Sadr City. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki had ordered the thousands of soldiers into the Shiite enclave as part of "Operation Peace." They were greeted with open arms.
"Now, we feel safe and stable," said Ayad Abbas, a Sadr City resident. "All the people of Sadr City want the rule of law … so, the army can enter" said another.
Normally unsure of the Mahdi army's volatility, Iraqi Army soldiers embraced their welcome.
"All of us are relatives and brothers. We are here to serve the people," said Salam Aaref, an Iraqi major.
The soldiers were heralded as heroes. And Maliki was seen as the strong leader he's frequently failed to be in the past — taking on the unpredictable Sadr and his Mahdi army.
But that wasn't always the case. A little context:
On Nov. 8, 2006, U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley wrote in an internal memo: "The reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action."