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Slowly, with leisure activities, life in Iraq feeling more normal

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Daily violence still terrorizes this city of 6 million. Mortars rain on homes. Gun battles erupt in streets. Car bombs rend buildings. Killers and kidnappers prowl through neighborhoods.

Many denizens remain under cover, leaving home only for work and other necessities. Yet there are signs, subtle and tentative, that Baghdad residents are cautiously emerging to reclaim normal lives.

A new playground has been attracting children and their parents. A new auto-racing club has been holding weekly drag races. Bingo games have returned to the exclusive Alwiyah Club near Fardos Square, where Saddam Hussein's statue fell 15 months ago.

The war's onset swiftly shuttered the 80-year-old club founded by British colonials, and its messy aftermath kept the institution closed for months. Few members returned when it reopened, fearful of venturing outside and of insurgent attacks against the foreigner-filled Sheraton and Palestine hotels near the club.

But the past month or two has seen more of the club's approximately 40,000 members walk through its doors, said club director Hisham Ammen Zeki. Members have been booking the banquet hall, bellying up to the bar and hitting the tennis courts.

"Although there have been some minor accidents, they have not been within the club," Zeki said, referring to mortar and rocket attacks on the nearby hotels. "You can tell that life is getting back to normal at the club."

So, it was time for bingo's comeback.

So far, the game is held one afternoon a week, indoors, and draws about 30 to 40 players. Before the war, several hundred people turned out for twice-weekly evening games, often on a patio near the club's courts and swimming pool.

Playing bingo one recent day with his wife and daughter, Baghdad resident Firas Saab, 35, said he and his family came to the club several times a week before the war. Last month they began coming regularly again—but only once a week.

"The security improved, and also this place is the only place for my family" to relax, said the pharmaceuticals salesman.

Longtime club members Media al Sewalia, 42, and her 17-year-old daughter, Shayan, also have been coming back to the club. Like others, they limit their excursions to daylight hours, instead of the midnight visits they often made before the war.

"We used to come for dinner and stay late and play a game or two" of bingo, al Sewalia said.

Nighttime is no deterrent in one affluent east Baghdad neighborhood, where families pack a half-mile strip of brightly lit restaurants, ice cream parlors, boutiques and sidewalk vendors until long after sunset. A neighborhood amusement park, complete with Ferris wheel, teems with children, their parents and young couples.

Children also are flocking to a new playground across town, in a residential neighborhood southwest of Fardos Square.

The football-field sized playground is on once-barren ground between ramps leading to the city's distinctive double-decked Tabken bridge over the Tigris River. American forces leveled the ground and built a chain-link fence, and city officials installed colorful playground equipment, a basketball court and a small soccer field.

The day after the playground opened, Hrand Ohannesian's two young boys, ages 8 and 11, dragged him to it immediately after he returned from work. Until then, the boys could only play at their house or on the street in front of it.

"My children told me there was a beautiful place near our house," the 50-year-old trading company negotiator said. "It's a very good idea to make something like this in Baghdad."

A month or two ago he wouldn't have let his children play in the playground, which is ringed by roads and offers no cover, Ohannesian said. Even now, he limits their visits to an hour.

Shatha Sarem also made a timid foray to the playground with her 3-year-old and 8-year-old daughters. The housewife, 30, said fear had kept her family from visiting parks in other neighborhoods for a year, so she's grateful to have a playground so close to home.

"We were depressed," Sarem said. "We're relieved now."

In Baghdad's Wahda neighborhood, on a block crowded with auto-repair shops, members of the fledgling Iraqi Car Racing Club pursue their own form of relief. In a grease-stained garage cluttered with car parts and tools, club members tinker with a small fleet of Trans Ams, BMWs, Corvettes, a Camaro and a turbo-charged Nissan.

"Danger is our name. Speed is our game," declared club member Ahmed Saffaa, 23, as Arabic rock music, boosted by a trunk-mounted amplifier and subwoofer, blared from his silver BMW.

The 7-month-old club, believed to be unique in Iraq, has about 100 members and more racing enthusiasts seeking to join. As the club grew, monthly drag races on a road circling a dry lake between Baghdad University and the Tigris River became weekly contests.

"We love cars," said club Vice Chairman Baha al Rubai, 38, who raced rally cars when he lived in Switzerland for several years. "We've loved racing since we were children."

The weekly races are on hiatus for now, since Iraqi officials planning to restore the lake have temporarily barred the club from the road. But the club is looking to the future, with plans to find another place to race, secure sponsors, start car shows and enter international races.

Said al Rubai: "We have ambitions."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+normal


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