BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Children played on swings and a band belted out popular folk music to mark the reopening of a famous Baghdad riverside avenue on Saturday, part of government efforts to take advantage of declining violence.
“I have not been on an outing like this for four years,” said Rajaa Mahmoud, who came with her husband and children to see Abu Nawas street officially reopened after a months-long facelift.
Scores of U.S. and Iraqi security forces deployed in and around the thoroughfare along the Tigris River, frisking visitors and preventing cars from reaching the area where government officials held a low-key ceremony.
Only a day earlier, a bomb hidden in a box of birds killed 13 people at a popular pet market in central Baghdad.
The $2 million project to rehabilitate the street was aimed at showing Iraqis that a nine-month-old security crackdown called Operation Imposing Law had succeeded in reducing sectarian bloodshed and the number of car bombs.
“The reopening and rehabilitation of Abu Nawas is one of the bright results of Operation Imposing Law,” Lieutenant-General Abboud Qanbar, head of the Baghdad security plan, said.
“We will poke terrorism in the eye,” he said in a speech.
Qanbar said two bridges, destroyed by bomb attacks, would also be rebuilt.
The Iraqi military has said 10 streets out of around 80 that have been closed for security reasons would be reopened this month in Baghdad. The closures have caused chronic traffic jams.
Levels of violence have fallen across Iraq in recent months, with the U.S. military saying attacks were down 55 percent since an extra 30,000 U.S. troops became fully deployed in mid-June.
With violence falling, something approaching normal life has begun to return to Baghdad.
But Friday’s attack on the pet market, a popular spectacle where sellers display a colorful range of creatures from monkeys to parrots, may dent confidence.
“Of course such (attacks) make me scared. I am still scared. I fear anything could happen because we know terrorists target such gatherings,” said Mahmoud, adding she had been too frightened until now to attend a public event since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Abu Nawas street, named after a famous 8th century poet, was once known for its bars and fish restaurants. Its park stretched towards the Tigris River where families picnicked.
Following the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, the street was cut off from the rest of Baghdad by tons of concrete blocks as the city hunkered down behind blast walls.
On Saturday, nearly a dozen families strolled up and down the street, lined with trees and boasting new benches. Several vintage cars that belonged to former Iraqi leaders were on display, including a grey 1932 Mercedes that was a gift from Adolf Hitler to Iraq’s King Ghazi.
As part of the rehabilitation project, shop owners were given $2,500 microgrants to help them get back on their feet.
Ali Mehdi, who owns a fish restaurant, said while business had picked up, he was only half as busy as during Saddam’s time.
“We are open for business,” he said. “But things are still not as they used to be.”
Writing by Alaa Shahine, Editing by Dean Yates and Elizabeth Piper