BAGHDAD (AFP) — In a sign of returning normalcy, the public swimming pool of the Iraqi capital's Zawra park reopened on Saturday with men and children plunging in the water as gun-toting US soldiers stood guard.
Closed since before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the pool has been rebuilt at a cost of nearly 500,000 dollars and opened at a time when the mercury is soaring and electricity supplies remain erratic.
"It's just great. I am very happy," said 11-year-old Muntawar who jumped into the water with his clothes on, while his two younger sisters screamed with joy and their mother watched from makeshift shade nearby.
"This is the first time I have come to this pool but I will come again with my friends," Muntawar said.
For the three children the war seemed far away.
Torn by a brutal insurgency and raging sectarian bloodshed, Baghdad is witnessing a period of relative calm on the back of a US military "surge" of troops since last year.
On Saturday, seven heavily-armoured US military vehicles escorted a group of journalists to witness the reopening as hundreds of men, women and children enjoyed their weekend break in Baghdad's largest open space.
The stately park with its zoo which has been virtually emptied once occupied pride of place in Baghdad.
It is near former president Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace that is now in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and US embassy.
The park was damaged when American tanks rolled into Baghdad during the invasion and reportedly destroyed a huge statue of Saddam on their way through Zawra.
Even as violence ripped through Baghdad since the war erupted in 2003, Baghdadis have often snatched moments from their troubled lives to spend some time in the park.
The pool reopening is bound to bring more picnickers to the park -- once famous for its tigers and now sheltering a few animals and birds -- as the heat peaks with temperatures of more 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
"We are so happy. This pool is for all Baghdadis and Iraqis. All Iraqis when they come to Baghdad can come here," said a smiling Yahya Mohammed Ali, deputy mayor of Baghdad who attended the reopening ceremony.
"It is a sign that peace is returning," he said, insisting the park and the pool were now safe.
The park has a single entrance guarded by armed men who frisk visitors.
Efforts to improve public places is part of a US military strategy to win over hearts and minds, something strongly promoted by General David Petraeus, head of US forces in the country, in his counter-insurgency manual.
"This is a good thing that the Americans are doing. People appreciate such things," said Mitzuk Muhy Attaya, 30, who came with his friends from the southern Baghdad district of Dora.
"The park is safe. I'm so happy."
One of his friends praised the Americans but lashed out at the Iraqi government.
"Our government has never done anything like this. It is only making money," he said, as two helicopters operated by US foreign security company Blackwater flew overhead.
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