Signs of normalcy in Iraq

Engineering student Haifaa Salman has discarded the Islamic head cover she started wearing two years ago after militants threatened to “punish” her if she kept showing up at college with her hair uncovered.

“I was forced to wear it,” the 22-year-old said, recalling the day in 2006 when two men on a motorbike stopped her outside campus to deliver the threat.

“It's different now,” she said. “Life is normal again. College women wear what they please. The extremist groups are gone.”

The decision by some women to shun the Islamic head cover, or hijab, is just one sign that Baghdad residents are increasingly confident in the past year's security gains.

Children with backpacks can be seen walking to school. Sidewalk cafes remain open after dark. Families stroll through parks in the sunset.

But after five years of violence, many people are hesitant.

“Things are much better now,” said Ziad Mohammed, a 49-year-old government employee who lives in Karkh, a mainly Sunni Arab district on the west bank of the Tigris.

“But fear is still inside me,” he added. “I want to get rid of it. Maybe it will happen next year.”

Baghdad remains very dangerous, and much of the capital looks like a city at war.

Miles of concrete blast walls and dozens of fortified checkpoints dissect the city. Some neighborhoods remain almost entirely walled off, and sectarian hatreds still simmer.

Even some of the women who are going without the hijab fear the militants. They take the head cover off only in certain neighborhoods.

“The clothes of female university students these days are shameful and more revealing than party dresses,” Sheik Muhannad al-Moussawi said in a Friday prayer sermon in Baghdad's Sadr City district.

Suheir Abbas, a 20-year-old Arabic literature student at Baghdad University, doesn't like that some of her female classmates come to class in revealing clothes.

“We live in a free country and everyone is free to wear whatever they want,” she said. “But we live in a Muslim country, and the feelings of others must be respected.”