Swimming Pools a Small Sign of Normalcy in Baghdad

The summer of 2008 saw a welcome counterinsurgency effort in Baghdad, what might be called Operation Swimming Pool. In a place where afternoon temperatures routinely top 120 degrees, what better way to win a few hearts and minds than to get the city's kids back in the water? Due to security concerns that made any large gatherings a terrorist target, many of the public pools hadn't been open in years, and all had deteriorated; one complex had reverted to sheep pasture, another was a death-squad dumpsite. With suicide bombings now few and far between in the capital, pools seemed like a good idea, and the U.S. military could move quickly on them using Commander's Emergency Relief Program (CERP) funds, which allow high-ranking officers to fund vital projects without long bureaucratic delays. "Purpose: Renew confidence of the local populace that their lives are returning to normal," as a military report put it. It was, in the words of the civil-affairs officer in charge of one of the pools, Maj. Jeffrey Smith, "a major nonlethal offensive."

Unhappily, the offensive has not been completely nonlethal. Two of the pools had their reopenings marred by drownings. The largest of the first four the military rebuilt, the Zawra Park Pool near the city's zoo, closed after a few weeks--the victim of a failed pump--and is yet to reopen. And the fourth, the Al Rafadain Pool near the Jihad neighborhood, on the borderline between Sunni and Shia areas, serves only Shias. None of the four, refurbished with a total of $1.1 million in CERP funds, have started admitting women. Like all victories in a war like Iraq's, Operation Swimming Pool has been at best a qualified one.

Most striking, though, is the fact that none of the pool problems have been of the terrorists' making. In the Adhamiya neighborhood, a hard-line Sunni stronghold, the Adhamiya Swimming Pool had actually been run by an Al Qaeda operative as his personal money cow; it was dirty, expensive and little patronized. When the neighborhood Sunni group known as the Sons of Iraq turned 50 local Al Qaeda types over to the Americans, the pool operator was among those arrested.

So its reopening on July 2, after $153,000 spent on refurbishing, ought to have been a poignant moment. American troops from the nearby patrol base Apache--named during harsher times--came to the grand opening. "It's really money well-spent when you look at the thrill that it's given these kids," said Lt. Col. Daniel Barnett, the local commander. No sooner had the Americans left, however, than the body of a 12-year-old boy was found in the bottom of the pool--where he'd apparently lay undiscovered for two hours, fully clothed. "The kids were excited and there was a lack of supervision at the pool," says an American civil-affairs officer. "After that we went back and said, 'Hey, we need to get more organized.' The opening was a great day, but it was clouded with that."

Now the Adhamiya pool has six lifeguards, who on a recent day were all at poolside, watching the kids like hawks. Five years of war have left a generation of young Iraqis unable to swim, and the pools have addressed the problem by issuing life jackets to swimmers--even teenagers. "I go in to rescue someone four or five times a day," says lifeguard Abu Ali. "If I have time, I take my shirt off, otherwise I just jump in."

The pool that Major Smith's unit refurbished, the Jadida pool in New Baghdad, a Shia area, was only open two weeks when an 18-year-old drowned, at a time when hundreds of swimmers had crowded into it; his drowning also wasn't noticed until hours later. The management fired all the lifeguards, replacing them with new ones who could swim. Now the Jadida pool is functioning again, this time with a limit of 100 swimmers at a time.

Manager Hamid Abdul Hussein gives the Americans high marks for taking the initiative to redo the pool, but insists the Iraqi contractors did little for the money spent. "I don't believe they spent 135 million dinars on the few things they did," he says. Actually, the final bill was 452 million dinars ($377,000), for mostly cosmetics, cleaning, painting and some plumbing work. Hussein says they need a generator, because there isn't enough electricity to pump the water more than once a day, sewers are chronically blocked, and there's no money for chlorine. Still, he's not quibbling too much. As recently as March, Hussein pointed out, there were three or four bodies on the street outside the pool every morning, in an area controlled by the Mahdi Army and now under truce. Nine-year-old Amer, a swimmer at Jadida, has been won over entirely. "I love to see the Americans here," he says, "because without them we would not be able to swim here."

Of the four pools, Al Rafadain's reopening has been the most trouble-free--partly because its complex of three pools segregates nonswimmers. Few if any of those swimmers are from the Sunni neighborhood only 200 yards away, but still, it's a long way from where it had been a year ago. "This place was used by the [Shia] militias for killing, and many bodies were found in the pool, everywhere around here," says manager Sadq Muhammed Naji. "Reconstruction changed it from a place for death to a place for enjoyment of life." In Iraq, for the moment at least, that's victory enough.

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