BAGHDAD - As soon as I arrived here, I went to visit the neighborhood of Hay Salaam, my bellwether as to the city's condition and prospects.
What I saw was tremendously heartening. But my visit also revealed the question marks that dog Iraq's future as U.S. combat troops prepare to pull back from cities no later than June 30.
This middle-class enclave had a Shiite majority and a sizable Sunni minority who got along before Iraq sank into sectarian strife in early 2006. As al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) targeted Shiite civilians, members of a vicious Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army or Jaish Mahdi (JAM) moved into the area on the pretext of protecting Shiite civilians. They murdered Sunnis, as well as Shiites who protested. Sunni families fled.
Driving around Hay Salaam this week, I saw a neighborhood reborn.
On the main street of small grocery, hardware and cell-phone shops, a couple of new restaurants were opening, their owners placing plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk. Women walked with small children, and men stood around chatting.
Most startling, 63 Sunni families who had been driven out have returned home over the last six months. And the gentle, popular and balding Sunni cleric Sheikh Fadel, who was so terrorized by death threats that he hardly left home for a year, told me that his congregation had jumped from 50 worshipers during the worst times to a robust 500 today.
So what has changed from the time, 18 months ago, when I interviewed a JAM thug dressed in black who told me he planned to kill Sheikh Fadel?
The shift started in 2007, when rural Sunni tribesmen who had once sheltered al-Qaeda in Iraq turned against it. The plunging fortunes of AQI made Shiites in Hay Salaam feel they no longer needed JAM for protection. When U.S. forces set up a small forward base nearby, local Shiites began tipping off the Americans about the location of JAM killers. U.S. troops would go at 2 a.m. to arrest the bad guys.
However, during my last trip, in December 2007, an old friend and one of the boldest opponents of JAM, Salaam Homrani, was receiving death threats. Relatives of one jailed JAM member falsely accused Homrani of complicity in a murder. The police arrested him, but he quickly phoned the Americans, who got him freed.
Since the police are suspect (many units were once infiltrated by JAM), Homrani decided to organize local Sunnis and Shiites to protect the neighborhood. He joined forces with Sheikh Rajab, a prominent Sunni tribesman and retired army officer whose father had been kidnapped and murdered by JAM. They raised 150 men, both Shiites and Sunnis.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been encouraging tribes to set up so-called support councils (which may help him in upcoming elections). So Homrani and Sheikh Rajab set up their own council and are awaiting government approval.
Their council has driven out the remnants of JAM and held a reconciliation gathering of Sunnis and Shiites at Sheikh Fadel's mosque. Hay Salaam is now safe.
I visited gray-haired Hussain Saleh Hashan and his family in a small, sparsely furnished, two-story concrete house with bullet holes in the outside wall. Holding his small grandson, he choked up as he recalled fleeing after his nephew and neighbors had been murdered. He recently returned after living with relatives outside Baghdad for a desperate year.
"This war between Shiite and Sunni is over," he said. He says the Iraqi army is better than before, but not the police. He feels safe only "because the support council patrols the streets."
Sheikh Rajab also distrusts the police. Elegant in a red-checked headdress and long brown robe, he is seated in a traditional Arab guest salon lined with gold velvet drapes and green couches. He wants the Americans to stay until the new army is trained better.
The good news in Hay Salaam is that Sunnis and Shiites are working together to keep the peace, and so far they have succeeded. There is graffiti on local walls praising Homrani and the support council.
The worrying news is that the people still feel they can't depend on their government's security forces to protect them. On one wall near the railroad tracks, there is graffiti that says "Down with Homrani, down with the Americans."
Some locals think JAM thugs may try to muscle in on the neighborhood again once the American base has folded. I wonder whether my friend Salaam will be safe.