Baghdad Begins New Era As Blast Walls Come Down

A worker rebuilds the pavement of Baghdad's Qadisiyah highway i i

A worker rebuilds the pavement of Baghdad's Qadisiyah highway in the days leading up to its reopening. The heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, once severed the east-west connector, causing endless traffic jams. Kais al-Jalele for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Kais al-Jalele for NPR
A worker rebuilds the pavement of Baghdad's Qadisiyah highway

A worker rebuilds the pavement of Baghdad's Qadisiyah highway in the days leading up to its reopening. The heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, once severed the east-west connector, causing endless traffic jams.

Kais al-Jalele for NPR
The Baghdad Hotel reopened, and the blast walls surrounding it have come down i i

The Baghdad Hotel reopened to the public this week. But even though the blast walls surrounding it are gone, concertina wire and small barriers still protect it. Nishant Dahiya/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nishant Dahiya/NPR
The Baghdad Hotel reopened, and the blast walls surrounding it have come down

The Baghdad Hotel reopened to the public this week. But even though the blast walls surrounding it are gone, concertina wire and small barriers still protect it.

Nishant Dahiya/NPR

Ahead of the June 30 deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities, changes are already coming to Baghdad — including the removal of hundreds of concrete blast walls from around U.S. installations. For nearly six years, these walls strangled Baghdad's traffic arteries.

Take the landmark Baghdad Hotel, which finally reopened its doors to the public for the first time since 2003, when American contractors rented out the entire building along the Tigris River after the U.S. invasion.

Rumors had it that the CIA lived in the hotel; before long, some of the first drab concrete blast walls stymied the traffic around the hotel, then around the entire neighborhood, including the four-lane avenue by the main gate.

For Ibrahim Shnawe, it was like putting the spirit of the city in a tomb. The hotel, he says, represents the "history of Baghdad."

Shnawe, who sits on the hotel's board of directors, says the Baghdad Hotel was the only one of its kind when he was a child.

Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim inaugurated it in 1958, and it hosted many kings and visiting heads of state.

The Americans didn't treat the place as well, leaving a dusty mess, Shnawe says.

Even when they moved out in 2007, the contractors continued living next door and wouldn't take down the blast-wall perimeter, so the Baghdad Hotel remained empty through its 50th anniversary last June.

This week, though, the walls came down. The hotel is still looking a little less than five stars, but the staff is excited to be back at work. Evelyn Zahir has supervised housekeeping here for the past 14 years.

"I'm very happy because we work again," she says.

The hotel's lounge and swimming pool may again become a fixture for Baghdad's well-to-do, but the removal of the blast walls in front of the hotel and on other avenues has delighted Baghdad residents, both rich and poor.

Police are directing traffic again on the Qadisiyah highway, which used to connect Baghdad east to west. The heavily fortified area known as the Green Zone — which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices — severed it and consumed several of Baghdad's main traffic arteries, causing mind-bending traffic jams.

Now, it's the Green Zone that has been split by the reopening of the road. Police prevent anyone from stopping as they pass through. The roads are wide open and new; all of the drivers have smiles on their faces.

What took up to an hour is now a five-minute journey. Alaa Amir is standing by the new traffic light at the entrance to the highway with his younger brother and two friends.

Amir says it has been so long that they can't quite agree which neighborhood they'd reach when they came out the other side. His teenage brother throws up his hands — he is too young to remember the city before the Americans came.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.