Baghdad Begins New Era As Blast Walls Come Down 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.
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Baghdad Begins New Era As Blast Walls Come Down

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Baghdad Begins New Era As Blast Walls Come Down

Baghdad Begins New Era As Blast Walls Come Down

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to Iran's neighbor, Iraq, where American commanders are preparing to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next Tuesday. Iraqis have mixed views about the draw down, but they are unanimous in welcoming another security development: the removal of hundreds of concrete blast walls from around American military posts, walls that for the past six years have been clogging Baghdad traffic arteries. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE: A Baghdad landmark finally reopened its doors this week.

(Soundbite of music)

LAWRENCE: Complete with live Muzak, the lobby of the Baghdad Hotel welcomed the public for the first time in six years. After the invasion in 2003, American contractors rented out the entire building along the Tigris River. Baghdad rumors had it that the CIA lived there. And 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.

Now what does this hotel mean to you and to Baghdad and Iraq? What is it a symbol of?

Mr. IBRAHIM SHNAWE (Board of Directors, Hotel Baghdad): It mean this - the history of Baghdad.

LAWRENCE: Shnawe sits on the hotel's board of directors, but he remembers as a child that the Baghdad Hotel was the only one of its kind.

Mr. SHNAWE: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qassim inaugurated it in 1958, says Shnawe, and the hotel hosted many kings or visiting head of state.

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

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

The walls came down this week. Though it's still looking a little less than five stars, the staff is excited to be back at work. Evelyn Zahir has supervised housekeeping here for the last 14 years.

Ms. EVELYN ZAHIR (Housekeeping Supervisor, Hotel Baghdad): I hope to work the hotel good. I hope many people to come. The (unintelligible) Iraqi people I want to come back here, also. I tell you I'm very happy because we work again.

LAWRENCE: 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 Baghdadis, both rich and poor.

(Soundbite of police siren)

LAWRENCE: Police are directing traffic again on the Qadisiyah highway, which used to connect Baghdad east to west. The heavily fortified Green Zone severed it, causing mind-bending traffic jams.

Now, it's the Green Zone that's been split by the reopening of the road. Police prevent anyone from stopping as they pass through.

So I'm driving through. We can't stop, but this is a newly opened Qadisiyah highway which used to be part of the Green Zone, which about six years ago just consumed several of Baghdad's main traffic arteries. Now they're wide open, they're clean, and they're new and everyone driving here has a big smile on his face.

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.

Mr. ALAA AMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: It's been so long, Amir says, that they can't quite agree which neighborhood they'd reach when they came out on the other side. His teenage brother throws up his hands. He's too young to remember the city before the Americans came.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.

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