Iraqi pop music poured from loudspeakers in Baghdad's popular Zawraa Park as families enjoyed picnics and children squealed on the "Space Gun," a thrill ride that looped them around in a full circle.
Then the sounds of a happy Friday afternoon were drowned out by the deep thump of low-flying U.S. military helicopters.
The moment could be a soundtrack for Baghdad as the sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion nears: ample signs that the city is settling back into some regular rhythms, but still far from a comfortable trust that the war and its violent offshoots can be declared over.
During the worst bloodshed — including periods in 2006 and 2007 when Baghdad was hit nearly daily by car bombs — many residents of Baghdad displayed a stunning resilience by keeping markets and schools open despite the huge risks.
Trying to embrace normal routines
Now they are struggling with a different type of resolve: trying to embrace normal routines in a city that has profoundly changed — from the obvious wartime landmarks such as blast walls and electricity shortages to the deeper social scars of families torn apart and the raw memories of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgent attacks.
There are clear examples of success.
The U.S. military says attacks nationwide are down more than 70 percent from a year ago. Thousands crowd public and amusement parks on weekends. Stores in Baghdad remain open well into the night and attendance at schools and colleges is at its highest levels since the war began in 2003.
Some checkpoints are now adorned with plastic flowers.
Another key test of stability will be provincial elections planned for this Saturday. Serious violence would cast doubt over Iraq's future and could influence President Barack Obama's decision on how fast to remove the 142,000 American troops.
Longing for a normal life
But tangible evidence of progress is not always matched by public perceptions. Many Iraqis are moving forward cautiously, but not yet fully convinced that their country has finally turned the corner.
"For me, the war will be over only when my life is normal again," said Sami, 45, a downtown Baghdad barber who would give only his first name. "That has not happened yet."
Sami's family, Sunni Arabs, has lived in neighboring Jordan since they fled Baghdad three years ago to escape the violence. They have no immediate plans to come home.
But then there is the optimism of Khalil Ibrahim Hussein, a 35-year-old taxi driver and father of a 4-year-old girl.
He took a recent Friday afternoon off to take his wife, daughter and four relatives to the Zawraa park, Baghdad's largest and most popular. They took a leisurely stroll — eating cotton candy and chatting.
"I feel perfectly safe in the park," he said. "I get fares to all over the city now. Sunni areas, Shiite areas, mixed areas. I don't care anymore. I go everywhere."
Hussein and his family were among several thousand who filled the park and shared a festive atmosphere that would have been unthinkable only a year ago — families eating a picnic lunch, kids buying party hats and blowup animal toys.
Still lacking essential services
But reminders of insecurity and hardships are everywhere.
Men and women are searched before they are allowed into the park. Cars, too, are examined. The route to the parking lot is separated from the rest of the facility by concrete barriers to defend against possible bombings.
U.S. military helicopters from the nearby Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, passed low over the park.
The most recent Pentagon report to Congress, issued in December, summarized the growing frustrations of many Iraqis and the spotty progress by U.S. and Iraqi reconstruction teams: shortages of clean water, electricity cuts, overtaxed sewage systems.
"The lack of essential services has now replaced security as the most important concern in the minds of most Iraqis," the report said.
It said 16 percent of Iraqis are somewhat or very satisfied with the amount of electricity they are receiving, down from 32 percent who felt satisfied in November 2007. Most places in central Baghdad still experience frequent power cuts and often have to rely on generators for 10 or more hours a day — with electrical supply far more limited in other parts of the country.
No to violence
"The war has ended," said Hashem al-Moussawi, a 44-year-old father of 10 who owns a photography shop in eastern Baghdad.
"But the army must stay on the streets for this peace to remain," added al-Moussawi, who was badly wounded in a late 2006 bombing. Baghdad — a city of 6 million — bore the brunt of both insurgent attacks and sectarian killings.
Shiite militiamen no longer control the streets outside al-Moussawi's shop in Sadr City, a vast Shiite district where the capital's last major fighting took place in May. In their place are hundreds of Iraqi army soldiers backed by Humvees and armored carriers and deployed at almost every street corner, bringing the area under direct state control for the first time since 2003.
Alongside the soldiers are young men in overalls and bright yellow and orange vests planting trees, laying yellow and red tiles on sidewalks, sweeping the streets and painting fences.
"Say 'No' to violence" is the message posted on several giant billboards in the area. Next to the message is an image of a young girl with a heartbreaking, pleading expression.
Nothing's the same
In the city's storied Mutanabi street book market — devastated by a March 2007 bombing — buildings have been renovated and the street resurfaced with tiles where sellers can display their books on flattened cardboard boxes.
The Mutanabi's Shahbandar coffee house, a Baghdad landmark that had been closed since the blast, has also reopened for business.
But nothing in Baghdad is the same as it was before. There are reminders of the violence but also signs of a new normalcy.
By the entrance to the coffee shop are somber photographs of owner Mohammed al-Sheikhli's four sons and grandson, all killed in the bombing.
And Tuesday, on a road along the Tigris River, Iraqi security forces who still watch over checkpoints no longer bothered street sweepers who walked by carrying their brooms over their shoulders. Instead, the soldiers gave them a salute.