THE INTERNATIONAL (ex-"GREEN") ZONE, BAGHDAD - In war reporting, the cliche is to pronounce any violence-free day "eerily calm," and then to survey the atmosphere for all its most exotic and menacing details: the "muezzin in the distance"... the "streets, empty of vendors and children"... the "locals," "biding their time."
Baghdad is calmer than at any time since I have known it. But there's nothing eerie about it: it's just sleepy and tired. It's as if a massive, citywide carbon monoxide leak set everyone into a profound torpor.
Five years ago, Baghdad was abuzz with commerce and terror. Cell phone companies did lucrative business, and downtown hummed with generators that spilled black polluted slicks into the street. From my hotel balcony I'd sit with a bag of pistachios and survey the Tigris and listen to the pops and bangs of bombs and small arms, and the the occasional whir of a Blackhawk zipping low over the water. I never visited it, but the old U.S. embassy, then in Saddam's palace, was a crowded hive of proconsular ado.
I haven't revisited downtown proper -- my embed keeps me from straying from the IZ, for now -- but from sounds and attitudes alone it's clear that postures have changed. I arrived by land from the airport, and hitched a lift on a KBR shuttle to my camp at about three in the morning. At that hour not a single noise penetrated the cool of the night -- no thunderclaps from cars blowing up in the distance, no rattle of gunfire. I'm told that the new embassy compound (the "NEC," pronounced like "neck") has the banality of a suburban junior college.
These are first impressions. More to come, when I've had time to explore.