For decades Abu Nawas Street was one of Baghdad’s most famous landmarks, a retreat for young lovers who strolled along the banks of the Tigris River and found anonymity under the magnificent old eucalyptus trees.
Now this place, named for a 9th century poet and famous for its art galleries, is becoming an unlikely gauge of progress in the 52-month-old Iraqi war.
Gen. David Petraeus, America’s top soldier in Iraq, is expected to report to Congress next month on a $5 million project to refurbish and reopen Abu Nawas Street. It will be held up as one of several successes in Baghdad since President Bush dispatched 30,000 more troops to Iraq this year, according to Maj. Anthony Judge, who oversaw the project.
The mile-long section of the street — and its buildings under restoration — is scheduled to reopen to the public Sept. 1.
The progress of showcase projects like Abu Nawas Street — no matter how small or modest — has become very important to the U.S. military as it tries to counter growing disenchantment with the war among American voters and politicians. The projects are also a way to bolster Pentagon claims that the presence of extra forces in Baghdad has led to improvements.
“It’s a success story, but it’s not the only one,” said Judge, of the 82nd Airborne, based in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Fears slow refurbishment
However, it’s still far from clear how the Abu Nawas story will play out. And it will likely be months, if not years, before the street could return to its former stature.
American crews began the restoration in April after a request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The project is jointly financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S.-led coalition forces and private investors.
But mortars fired from eastern Baghdad toward the protected Green Zone just across the river often fall short, crashing into the street, the park or the wide Tigris. Areas close to the street, such as the mainly Shiite Karradah district and Tahrir Square, have seen some of worst bombings blamed on insurgents since 2003. Firdous Square and adjacent streets often see late-night gun battles.
To reopen the street, giant cranes removed or rearranged hundreds of blast barriers and tons of barbed wire.
Grass was planted in the park, foot bridges built and children’s swings and benches installed.
Restaurants and other businesses were refurbished and owners were promised cash grants to get them through what promises to be a slow start.
These days, children clamor around the U.S. soldiers patrolling Abu Nawas Street. Residents, including women, turn to them for help with problems and inquiries. And the military consults with the street’s business community on planning.
Few customers at first
Yet some argue that the very presence of American troops attracts insurgent attacks.
“We never feel safe in the presence of U.S. and Iraqi forces near our homes,” said Umm Haidar, a 42-year-old housewife who, despite her fears, acknowledged that the renovated park and the stepped-up security would give her kids the safety and space they need to play outside.
Fish restaurant owner Sabah Kamel is delighted that he will get a $2,000 grant to buy new tables and chairs.
However, he’s also worried that families will stay away from the street because some restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol — which risks bringing a backlash from conservative Muslim factions. The irony is not lost on those who know their city lore. The street’s namesake — the poet Abu Nawas, who adopted Baghdad as his home more than 1,200 years ago — often mused about wine, revelry and once mentioned a drink that hit the ribs like a “firebrand.”
A small furniture factory, a travel agency, a real estate broker and an art gallery also are opening. The owners say they are banking on business picking up when a portion of the street reopens to vehicle traffic next month.
'Maybe things will change'
Gallery owner Haider Hashem reopened his business two months ago for the first time in more than two years when he heard of the project.
He has come to his gallery for only about two hours every morning — which is about the limit these days because of power outages and the sweltering heat.
He has yet to sell a single item.
“I think it will take 10 years for Abu Nawas to return to what it used to be,” he said, as he pointed out cracks in the walls of the three-story gallery that he said were caused by a series of car bombings.
“I will keep coming to the gallery every day, maybe things will change. What can I do? I am a drowning man holding on to a straw,” said Hashem, a 39-year-old father of two who has been making ends meet by selling paintings by Iraqi artists to collectors in the oil-rich Gulf region.
The Abu Nawas Street community has already survived Saddam’s disastrous eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf war, crippling U.N. sanctions and grinding economic problems. But after U.S. Marines toppled Saddam’s statue at the nearby Firdous Square in 2003, hundreds of American troops moved into the Palestine Hotel, an 18-story tower standing halfway along the riverside street.
Soon most of the smart apartment blocks built for officers of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard were abandoned, their occupants fleeing out of fear of reprisals. Squatters, mostly Shiites from the capital’s poorest districts or the south of the country, moved in.
Then came concrete blast barriers, checkpoints manned by U.S. soldiers in Humvees, armed Iraqi policemen and private security guards to protect the hotel. Only residents were allowed in the sealed-off stretch of the street.
It was not long before the street’s six art galleries closed, the restaurants emptied and the park became a wasteland used only by an expanding pack of stray dogs. Qadourah, a popular restaurant that served a daunting breakfast of beans, eggs cooked with minced beef and raw onions, was bombed in 2005. Several restaurants were rebuilt, but none have put up signs to announce their name.
'Everything ... depends on the security'
Now the key to the region’s future may well be security.
Before the reopening, several dozen families who lived along the avenue were screened for links to Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida in Iraq or Shiite militiamen.
Side streets have been blocked by concrete barriers. No parking will be allowed and access will be controlled by three checkpoints.
A platoon of U.S. soldiers will patrol the street around the clock and additional security will be provided by Iraqi policemen and private security guards.
“Everything and every business depends on the security,” said Umm Mohammed, at the street’s largest travel agency. “The better the security, the better the business.”