Many things have changed in Iraq, but one thing that has remained constant over the last few years is the military.
Dressed in a uniform of navy blue trousers, royal blue shirt, a black beret and with a Kalashnikov barrel resting on his boot, Ali Hussein Naji looks out of place in a family leisure park.
AdvertisementSurrounded by palm trees and standing next to a giant lagoon amid beautiful Ottoman style buildings that are almost deserted, the Iraqi policeman recalls that life was not always like this.
Incongruous as it now seems, people constantly enjoyed themselves and, on Baghdad Island at least -- now newly reopened to the public -- did not live under the shadow of a gun.
"During Saddam Hussein's reign, we did not carry weapons here but every day after he was gone mortars landed and nobody visited after 2003," says Naji, gazing at the 50-metre tall observation tower that is the island's centrepiece.
Situated north of Baghdad and bordered on one side by the Tigris river, the once renowned pleasure spot featured restaurants, a bowling alley, an amusement arcade, football pitches, tennis courts and holiday flats among its amenities.
The tower building and a nearby amphitheatre remain undamaged but the rest of the site is dilapidated, after a heavy bout of post-invasion looting, US military occupation, shelling from insurgents and years of economic stasis.
What remained of the artificial island, named "Jazeerat Baghdad" in Arabic, re-opened to the public over the weekend coinciding with Eid al-Adha, a Muslim holiday and feast marking the end of the hajj.
Naji, who lives nearby and spent much of his childhood on the island when his father worked there, was among the security detail.
"It will need a lot of effort to make it a success," says the 39-year-old policeman, whose heavily lined face and wispy black but greying hair make him look much older.
Built by two Finnish construction companies and completed in 1982, the two million square metre landscaped site attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 people daily, peaking at more than 50,000 during special events or holidays.
Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay had a villa on the site, one of their many playgrounds, and the island's waterways were packed with small boats used by families on days out.
In the days leading up to the 2003 invasion ordered by then US president George W. Bush, the island was occupied by the Iraqi army and soon after combat operations began, it was hit by at least one missile.
After Saddam's overthrow, it was used as a US base. Many of the buildings have shell damage and only a few of them have windows and fittings, the rest having been looted.
"It was pretty much Saddam's crown jewel," says Colonel Maria Zumwalt, of the US army's 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, based out of Fort Hood, Texas.
The unit's soldiers have worked alongside Iraqis to clear the site and re-fill the lagoon as part of a 1.5-million-dollar project, funded by the US military, Iraq Ministry of Tourism and other government agencies.
"When we arrived in February, it was a mess but we felt we could make a difference," Zumwalt says, while admitting it was a slow process.
Wherever the regeneration money is being spent, the park's sand-orange concrete buildings seem starved of care and almost all are in need of major renovation.
The amphitheatre's stretched canvas roof, however, remains intact and the arena, whose seats have been given a new lick of purple paint, is impressive.
Admission on the island will be free for the first two days and afterwards will be 500 Iraqi dinars (45 cents).
One man who insists better days lie ahead is Nassir Ranim al-Rubaye, the island's operations manager. "We have enough money to fix the area," says the 46-year-old who started working there in 1994.
"We will restore the bowling alley, the arcade and all the restaurants. Families will come back."
He remains bitter though about the damage inflicted on the island by both the American military and the insurgents who persistently fired mortars at US troops who holed up there after the fall of Saddam.
"The Americans used the area for one year as a camp. Between them and the insurgents who shelled them, they made a real mess."
While Rubaye's hopes, like those of Colonel Zumwalt's, are high, the reality is the elevator leading to the observation tower, the highlight of previous visits where people could see all of Baghdad while enjoying a meal, does not work.
The entrance to the complex, meanwhile, is a morass of barbed wire and concrete and blast proof T-walls, and there is clearly a lot of work to be done before the island regains its reputation as first choice for fun days out.
Complaints from local Iraqis are numerous and laced with blame for the US invasion that led to the island's degradation. Subsequent American efforts to atone are not universally welcomed.
"It was once beautiful," says Ahmed Moed, a 23-year-old musician from Adhamiyah, a Sunni stronghold in northern Baghdad where Saddam made his last public appearance as Iraqi president, and where resentment against today's Shiite-led government runs deep.
"The water (in the lagoon) was blue and you could see the fish. Now it is dirty green. The Americans ruined it. The island was better under Saddam."
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