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Tragedy ends reprieve from Baghdad's heat

June 23, 2008|Raheem Salman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When I heard that the U.S.-led forces had helped refurbish a swimming pool in the New Baghdad neighborhood of the capital, I wanted to write about what I was sure would be a joyful scene of happy children at play in a former Shiite Muslim militia stronghold.

But when I arrived at the pool on a hot day, I was astonished to find the door closed.

My first thought was that there must be limited opening hours. But when I asked some men sitting at the entrance to the parking lot, one of them said woefully: "Apparently, even the happy things soon become sad in our country."

Hamid Abdul Hussein, a guard, explained what had happened.

After years of disuse, the pool had reopened June 7. Residents, officials, religious leaders and U.S. soldiers turned out for the inauguration.

"We brought some cake and soft drinks," Hussein said. "People were happy."

Soon, the street outside was busy with people coming to the pool, which provided a refreshing break from the hot, dusty weather and constant power outages.

"This pool is an indication that life in this neighborhood is getting back to normal, especially after the militias were controlling [the area] and restricting people's lives," said Firas Mahmoud, a father of two boys who lives nearby. "People breathed a sigh of relief when it was reopened."

Hussein said U.S. officers had insisted that residents be allowed to use the pool free of charge. As many as 200 people were crowded into the facility June 16. Amid all the laughter, shouting and playing, no one noticed at first that an 18-year-old youth had drowned, he said.

The response from local authorities was swift. Three lifeguards and the pool manager were arrested. Three other lifeguards fled.

The incident also sparked a tribal feud, Hussein said. Relatives of the victim, who was visiting from the southern city of Amarah, demanded compensation for his death from the families of those in charge of the pool.

The pool has been closed since. Hussein had brought his own generator to help pump the water out. Every day, neighborhood boys drop by to ask whether it will open again.

"I came with some friends some days ago and swam in this pool," 12-year-old Ahmed Alwan said wistfully. "It was a very nice time. But now we are eagerly waiting for it to be reopened, especially as we have finished our final exams."

The pool used to be a popular hangout during Saddam Hussein's regime. But its pumps and equipment were looted in the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. It took three months to refurbish.

Hussein is keeping the pool clean in the hopes that the manager and lifeguards will soon be released and the place can reopen.

This time, he said, "we won't allow more than 75 to enter the pool in each shift, so that we can control them."

Most of those coming don't know how to swim, he said. The management had been planning to start classes when the drowning occurred.

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