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IRAQ: Swimming pool opens with a splash ... then closes again

June 22, 2008 |  9:27 am

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Raheem_3_2 By Raheem Salman in Baghdad

When I heard that the U.S.-led forces had helped refurbish a swimming pool in the New Baghdad neighborhood of the capital, I wanted to write about what I was sure would be a joyful scene of happy children in a former Shiite Muslim militia stronghold. But when I arrived at the pool on a hot summer day, I was astonished to find the door closed.

My first thought was that there must be limited opening hours. But when I asked some men sitting at the entrance to the parking lot, one of them said woefully: "Apparently, even the happy things soon become sad in our country."

They sent for the guard, Hamid Abdul Hussein, who explained what happened.

After years of disuse, the pool reopened with a splash June 7. A lively mix of local residents, officials, religious leaders and U.S. soldiers turned out for an inaugural celebration.

"We brought some cake and soft drinks. People were happy," Hussein said.

Soon, the street was busy with people coming and going from the pool, which provided a refreshing break from the hot, dusty weather and constant power outages.

"This pool is an indication that life in this neighborhood is getting back to normal, especially after the militias were controlling it and restricting people's lives," said Firas Mahmoud, a father of two boys, who lives nearby. "People breathed a sigh of relief when it was reopened."

Hussein said U.S. officers had insisted that residents be allowed to use the pool free of charge. As many as 200 people were crowded in on June 16. Amid all the laughter, shouting and playing, no one noticed at first that an 18-year-old man had drowned, he said.

The response from local authorities was swift. Three lifeguards and the pool manager were arrested. Three other lifeguards fled.

The incident also sparked a tribal feud, Hussein said. Relatives of the young victim, who was visiting from the southern city of Amarah, are demanding compensation from the families of those in charge of the pool.

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The pool has been closed ever since. Hussein brought his own generator to help pump the water out. Every day, neighborhood boys drop by to inquire whether it will open again.

"I came with some friends some days ago and swam in this pool," 12-year-old Ahmed Alwan said wistfully. "It was a very nice time. But now we are eagerly waiting for it to be reopened, especially as we have finished out final examinations."

The pool used to be a popular hangout under Saddam Hussein's regime. But its pumps and equipment were looted in the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It took three months to refurbish.

Guard Hussein is now cleaning out the pool in the hopes that the manager and lifeguards will soon be released and the place can open again.

This time, he said, "we won’t allow more than 75 to enter the pool in each shift, so that we can control them."

Most of those coming don't actually know how to swim, he said. "The management had been planning to start classes to teach the boys how to swim."

Photos: The newly refurbished swimming pool in New Baghdad closed days after it opened; a pile of life rings waits for the children to return. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times

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