BAGHDAD (Reuters) - For Iraqis, it’s a vision of what Baghdad could be — no concrete blast walls, no sandbags or meandering worms of razor wire, just a colorful lakeside resort where children can swim and strollers take in the sunset.
Jadriya Lake, a popular playground that has twice been shut by war and chaos, reopened on Friday to the delight of scores of Iraqis who splashed straight in, most of them teenage boys.
Officials hope the resort heralds a new, carefree age of leisure in a city for too long mired in bloodshed and despair.
“We’re saying to Iraqis: ‘Baghdad is now safe. Please come and enjoy yourselves’,” tourism ministry spokesman Hassan al-Fayath told Reuters at the lakeside. “They will come.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many, albeit cautiously, as lower violence breathes new life into some parts of Baghdad.
At sunset on Friday, the Muslim holy day, the vast, upmarket Karrada district, not far from Jadriya, is teeming.
Families flock to restaurants selling minced lamb kebabs. At an arcade, a group of young men concentrates on a vigorous game of table football as some teenage boys strut between palm trees on the pavement outside, laughing and kicking a plastic bottle.
At dusk, thousands converge on Abu Nawas park, an expanse of greenery on the eastern banks of the Tigris. Only the occasional black shapes of American helicopters or the wail of a police siren convey reminders that this is still a war-zone.
“We come here to regain some of that peace and calm we lost,” says Abbas Farham, 52, as he enjoys a picnic with his wife and two young children in the park the next afternoon.
“All Baghdad is a prison of concrete, but not here. Last year we stayed in our houses and talked to the neighbors through the walls. Now, we can go out and entertain the children.”
It is this new confidence that officials hope Jadriya Lake will harness.
The Jadriya resort was opened as “Saddam Lake” at the end of 2002, months before Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion. A huge — and very kitsch — man-made waterfall near its entrance testifies to that era.
After the invasion, looters stole the resort’s pumps, which suck water from the Tigris to feed the 37-hectare (91 acre) pond, and it quickly ran dry, Fayath said.
In 2005 a private contractor reopened the park, which again became popular with families, young lovers and thrill seekers on jet skis and speedboats. But it shut again late the following year as Iraq spiraled into sectarian conflict.
Jadriya’s current manager, Ahmed Faiq, who has been closely involved in sprucing it up, wants it to be more popular than ever. He thinks he could get at least 10,000 paying customers on an average weekend day.
“My vision for this resort? I see cafes, restaurants, shops and kiosks all along the lakeside there,” he says, gesturing to the paved edge near a wall painted different colors. “Families will come and we’ll feed them with takeaways.”
Behind the lake lies a park with playgrounds and fairground rides, also a selling point for families with small kids.
“I’m going to swim in here. Why not? It’s more secure than most of Baghdad,” said Ibtisam Abdu Rahman, a 46-year old mother and council worker.
The violence that plagued Baghdad hasn’t stopped — at least 5 people were killed by a bomb in the city centre on Sunday — but few Iraqis expect a return to the chaos of recent years.
“I love swimming. Before, we could not go out at all,” said 17-year-old Ahmed Khazin before plunging himself in, still wearing a T-shirt. “Now we can come here even at night.”
Editing by Robert Hart