Baghdad gets make-over as repairs kindle guarded optimism
By Timour Azhari and Amina Ismail
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Living in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City suburb for the past 15 years, Khodr Abbas, 73, had to walk along a mud and dirt track to get to his home, where he would struggle to get fresh water to flow and waste-water to flush through rickety pipes.
That finally changed last month.
Diggers, bulldozers and other heavy equipment arrived and ripped up ground to lay sewage and water systems that were then topped with fresh tarmac roads and lined with neat pavements.
Similar scenes have played out across the city of more than nine million, part of a push by Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani's new government to improve basic services for citizens weary of years of conflict and government neglect.
Buoyed by high oil prices, relative stability and the support of powerful political factions, Sudani has focused on quick wins to placate a largely young population who have staged repeated protests against his political backers, analysts say.
The push includes improving roads, bridges and sidewalks, removing security checkpoints that worsened traffic, cleaning up facades of buildings damaged by war and revamping parks and promenades that hug the Tigris River that bisects the city.
Electricity supply has also improved, with daily cuts almost absent well into May, when they are usually the norm, though they are expected to return in summer as consumption peaks.
In more than two-dozen interviews, Iraqis said they felt guarded optimism about the future due to the improvement in infrastructure and recent stability that has opened up the country to a trickle of tourists, mostly from Arab states.
Many said these changes were the most significant they had seen since the 2003 U.S. invasion, but still fell short in a state that made more than $115 billion from oil sales in 2022 and suffers from rampant corruption that cripples services.
Sudani "wants to avoid the idea of a protest, which is why he went very hard at things that people can feel (now), not things that will benefit them in 10 years," said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based fellow at The Century Foundation.
"He wants to be seen as the can-do man for all of Iraq."
'NEW AND EXCITING'
A main project to break ground during Sudani's tenure is a nearly 2.5 km (1.5 mile) corniche along the Tigris' east bank, along the Abu Nawas park, one of Baghdad's biggest green spaces.
Fitted with dedicated running and cycling lanes, benches and public bathrooms, it has received throngs of visitors since partially opening earlier this year.
"It's something new and exciting to be able to take my son for a walk along here. We thought we could do this in France but never in Iraq," said a woman in her mid-30s who identified herself only as Um-Ahmed, or "Mother of Ahmed," in Arabic.
Impediments clearly remain: the river itself is chock-full of sewage and trash, both of which are dumped in untreated.
Baghdad Mayor Ammar Musa Kazem said the current works were only the beginning, financed by some 530 billion dinars, ($400 million) the city had been allocated via a 2022 emergency food law in lieu of a budget, which he said should be passed soon.
"This push to develop the capital Baghdad is the most extensive undertaking of its kind," he told Reuters in an interview.
Baghdad has also sought help from abroad.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was in Iraq last week to sign what she called a "friendship pact" with the city.
She told Reuters in a statement that both mayors were "acting to meet challenges such as water management and the organisation of essential services for the inhabitants."
'BAGHDAD COMING BACK'
Iraqi-Canadian artist Iyad Al-Mosawi fled Baghdad as a child amid war with Iran in the 80s and did not return until 2019.
Earlier this month, he put on an exhibition at The Gallery, a sleek exhibition centre in the city's Karada neighbourhood where he is originally from.
"I find that Baghdad is coming back," Mosawi said, noting he had attended eight exhibition openings in just two weeks.
But many Iraqis remain fearful that relative improvements could be erased by fierce political divisions boiling over, or that the associated economic gains will not reach them in a country where unemployment officially sits at 16%.
A real estate boom in the city - which officials say is partially financed by money laundering - is also pricing out many locals while eating up heritage homes and green spaces.
"There is money and stability in the country, sure. But what benefit is stability when people can't find jobs or afford to eat?" said Ghazwan Fallih, a car garage owner in Sadr City who pointed to a row of unemployed friends passing time by smoking in front of his store.
(Reporting by Timour Azhari and Amina Ismail in Baghdad; Writing by Timour Azhari; Editing by William Maclean)