Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Baghdadis Resent Park Encampments

Capital's residents say coalition occupation of their parks means they can't escape stress of everyday life.
By Awadh al-Tae'e

Just north of Baghdad, past slender date palms and groves of orange trees, lies what used to be the capital's favourite refuge from the congestion of the city.


Bordered on one side by the Tigris river, and on three others by a lake stocked with coloured fish, Baghdad Island's flower gardens, football pitches, tennis courts, restaurants, wedding halls and observation tower once attracted droves of visitors from the capital.


Today, however, visitors at the island's main gate are greeted by a cement wall and a gate bearing a sign marked "Bandit Island". The gardens have become the home to soldiers of the US army's 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, nicknamed the "Bandits".


Throughout Baghdad, recreational areas have been taken over by American forces - yet another reason why many Iraqis feel their lives are on hold so long as coalition troops are deployed in their cities.


Of Baghdad's former weekend attractions, the gardens of the Martyr's Monument, the nearby Games City theme park, the popular marriage venue Wedding Island and the lakes of Habbaniya and Saddamiyat al-Tharthar are now military zones. Of the capital's major parks, only the local zoo remains open to the public.


"The situation on the island is like that of other tourist parks in the country, 90 per cent of which are occupied by US troops," said Ghazi Salman, Iraq's director of parks.


Twenty years ago, Baghdad was renowned for its gardens and parks. Tourists from across the Arab world flocked to the city to relax by the Tigris or dine on fish in one of the restaurants on the riverside Abi Nawass street.


Deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, however, confiscated much of the Tigris' banks for his palaces - citizens stopped going to Abi Nawass street after Saddam built a walled complex across the river, fearing they would be suspected by security of planning an attack - and the 2003 war appears to temporarily have finished off the capital's recreation areas.


Baghdad Island was particularly beloved by Iraqis. "On feast days and similar occasions before the fall of the old regime, the facility would welcome an average of 50,000 visitors a day," said Jassem Mohammed, director of admissions on the island.


Now, however, employees fear that even if the troops withdraw, the island might not be in any shape to receive visitors.


Several days before the war, it was occupied by Iraqi army and security, says restaurant worker Haidar Barbouti. One warehouse was hit by a missile strike during the fighting, but the real destruction came afterwards. When US forces entered the Baghdad area, the Iraqi troops fled - and the island was looted by civilians.


As happened elsewhere in the capital, looters took not only furniture and other moveable assets, but stripped away wiring, plumbing and irrigation equipment from the buildings and gardens, Barbouti said. Six days later US troops arrived there and set up camp.


"There is no place in Baghdad that provides such peace and calm as the island, which is now an American encampment," said current director Nasser Ghanem.


He added, however, that there has been cooperation between the US soldiers and Iraqi contractors to restore the island's buildings.


But, Barbouti says, its lawns and trees have not been watered, despite an appeal to the Americans by the former director. The island's once-lush vegetation is now brown and withered.


"When we got here the place was in a really bad state, having been looted - especially the furniture and the portable items. The glass and doors were smashed," said US army captain Jon Brooks.


"The first thing we did was to fix up the buildings so our soldiers could sleep there, and repair the electricity with the help of Iraqi contractors and funds from the army budget."


There's no set time for the Americans departure, but, he added, "We'll return the island to the tourism authority when we leave."


Salman expects the American to withdraw from the parks in six months, but says that the local tourism authority has not yet received any funds from the Iraqi government to restore them.


For the moment, though, it seems that many Baghdadis will simply be relieved to have there green spaces back.


Salaam Tamah, an agrarian engineer, said, "We miss these places and we hope that the coalition withdraws from these parks as soon as possible. We're always tense because of the war - military news and terror, this one killed, that one killed - and the parks were a chance to escape from the daily stress."


"We need these recreational areas - they're our only breathing space," said secondary school student Hassanein Daoud. "The island has a major role in the return of normalcy to Iraq."


Nian Sarwan, a graphic designer, agreed, " The parks have happy memories for us. The Ba'ath occupied the most beautiful of them, and now we're forbidden from visiting the little parks that we used to go to [because of US military occupation]. If we get the parks back, it's possible that there will be more stability in the country, because people will be more relaxed."


Awadh al-Tae'e is an IWPR trainee.


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