Iraqis eat at the food hall of Baghdad's mall in the Mansour neighborhood in December 2013. / Ahmad ASl-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images
BAGHDAD ‚?? The line of cars was several blocks long, as motorists waited patiently to be searched so they could enter the parking lot. A seemingly endless parade of taxis pulled up in front of the massive entrance, with a gigantic video screen nearby.
Families pushed through the glass doors into another world: the Mansour Mall.
Inside, there's a movie theater featuring Hollywood films, a food court with endless choices and three floors of well-lit shops carrying authentic Western brands. A caf√© serves cappuccinos.
It's a genuine mall. There's nothing else like it in Baghdad.
"Everything you need is here," said Ahmad Ibraheem Mohammed, 32, who sat at a table in the food court with his wife and two young children. They all looked happy.
"Here we forget we are in Iraq," said Nouraldeen Sabah, 24.
The mall opened a year ago and has attracted thousands of people every day. Families come with their children. Couples stroll holding hands. Women are dressed in jeans and Western fashions. Teens hang out in groups. Even if some of the shops are too pricey, people seem to never tire of meandering around or eating at the food court.
"People come just to see this," said Mohammed Yasin, 27, who manages a cosmetic shop.
Baghdad had some other shopping centers called malls, but the name served only to underscore how inadequate they were.
Under Saddam Hussein, most Iraqis couldn't travel. Today, many have been to Dubai and other modern cities. "When they come back, they want to see the same thing here," Yasin said.
I've been coming to Iraq off and on since 2003, when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam. Every time I come back, I look for changes; signs of progress or decline.
Saddam's removal gave rise to hope in Iraq. It also unleashed dark forces that have cruelly crushed those aspirations at nearly every turn.
The U.S.-led invasion paved the way for a deadly insurgency. Then Iraq was plunged into a brutal civil war that left thousands dead. The surge of U.S. forces in 2007 helped end the civil war and reduce violence, but after U.S. troops left in 2011, sectarian tensions rose again.
Today an army of jihadists has taken over large sections of the country and is surrounding Baghdad.
In between catastrophes, Iraq would lurch forward. It has begun to attract foreign investment. Oil production is up. Regular elections are held.
It's hard to know what to make of this oasis in the middle of the sprawling capital city. Is it a sign of progress or a stark reminder of how little the rest of the country has changed? At least two more giant malls are planned, but the rest of the city doesn't look appreciably different than it did 10 years ago.
For Iraqis, history didn't start in 2003. Their past is replete with wars, coups and revolts. They've learned to live in the moment. They were never as hopeful ‚?? or as pessimistic ‚?? as Americans have been about their country.
"We take every day as a separate day," Sabah said. "We don't care anymore when there is an explosion."
I tried to probe people about where the country is now and their hopes for the future, but they seemed puzzled by the questions, annoyed by the constant need to measure the country's progress. They were unfailingly polite, but they wanted to be left alone.
"I forget our problems when I am here," Sabah said. "You see all these people laughing, talking, shopping."
Michaels, a former Marine infantry officer, covers military affairs for USA TODAY.
Read the original story: Voices: Iraqis mellow at the mall