It's hard to explain how different it is here than it was two years ago. But maybe the shopping jaunt we took on Saturday might help explain it.When I was last here in '05 and '06, it was unheard of to get out of your vehicles for this long. And if you were on foot for very long, security was tight. Gunners at every corner; armed Humvees bounding from street to street to provide cover; a screening force patrolling adjacent alleys; a QRF ready to jump at a moment's notice.
Not now.Instead it's traffic cops with blue-peaked hats and little white paddles directing cars, cabs and trucks around the main traffic circle of Karmah. Shops were open, kids were swarming, and we couldn't walk 10 feet without having to shake someone's hand. It's not so much a difference of security than it is of attitude. I don't know how it is all over Iraq, but at least in Karmah -- where insurgents and AQ terrorists found a bastion after Fallujah and Ramadi flipped -- the atmosphere has changed. People smile at the Marines rather than glower at them with cold, contemptuous stares.
We went into a dark alley jammed with goods. I think there was one other Marine with me and Lima 3/3 company commander, Capt. Qunitin Jones, who told me: "I only sometimes carry my rifle on trips like this, most of the time I just bring my pistol..." Crazy thoughts just a year ago.The Marines want to take it further. Several commanders want to ditch the combersome side SAPI plates and Kevlar helmets for good. And most grunts want to ditch the armor all together and stick with simple plate carriers. The only holdup is that the brass at the top are paranoid about a potential "I told you so" moment.
But at the street level,things are definitely different here now. It's palpable. The only fear among the Marines and their Iraqi counterparts is can it stick?-- Christian