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A reporter returns to Iraq – and finds guarded optimism

The evidence is seen in late-afternoon strolls in the park, meetings with long-missed friends, relief over an improved economy.

On Cue: Iraqi boys rack them up as a US soldier passes on a foot patrol with Iraqi soldiers in the Karkh area of Baghdad. Many Iraqis see signs of progress in the gradual resumption of mundane activities in the city – from rebuilding sidewalks to the ability to linger outside an ice-cream store.

Petros Giannakouris/AP

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Walid Nahem sits at a small iron table with his nephew Haidar Karim, green grass under their feet, before them an expansive view of the fabled Tigris River silently wending its way through the Iraqi capital.

It's still light enough to read Haidar's ninth-grade English lesson book, opened to a chapter on letter writing. But the heat and glare of Baghdad's daytime sun are gone, leaving a diffused light that puts the date palms and low-slung buildings on the opposite bank in impressionistic relief, while taking the edge off the concrete walls and bomb-scarred buildings also in view.

It is this preferred time of day that has brought Mr. Nahem and Haidar out to Abu Nawas Park, a newly reopened and refurbished stretch of riverfront greenery, flower beds, playgrounds, and soccer fields.

"Taking your lesson books outside to the fresh air is like a tradition in Iraq, and now we feel that, at least in this place, it is safe and possible to do this again," says Nahem, a security guard. As families stroll and children squeal at swings and slides, Nahem says this tentative return to old ways is cause for cautious optimism. "God willing, it means all Iraq is getting better, that security is coming back," he says. "I think there's a chance this can be true."

Lingering outside the ice-cream shop

For a reporter last here a year ago, during perhaps the deepest of Iraq's despair, there is a palpable change: visible in such mundane things as sidewalk rebuilding projects and people lingering outside a favorite ice-cream shop, audible in the tone of families returning to neighborhoods they'd fled in fear.

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