In Iraq, Fear Takes a Holiday
Relative Calm Draws Residents to Play in Baghdad Park

By Karin Brulliard and Salih Dehema
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 22, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 21 -- Years had passed since Muhaned Kamal last went to central Baghdad's vast Zawra Park. By his wartime risk assessment, it was just too dicey.

But Wednesday was Nawruz, a holiday celebrating the arrival of spring. And Baghdad was five weeks into a security crackdown that seemed to have brought some calm. So Kamal and his friends were at Zawra, playing tennis with wooden rackets and poker under tall eucalyptus trees.

They would come back on Friday, Kamal said, waiting for a bus home as the ginger-colored sun lowered over Baghdad's hazy skyline. And the Friday after that.

"I used to always hold the Koran in my pocket, or a copy of a prayer my mom put in my wallet, to keep me from danger," Kamal said. Lately, his vigilance has waned. "These days are a lot better than before."

In relative terms, recent weeks in Baghdad have been quiet -- execution-style killings are down and nearly a month has passed since the last massive bombing, an explosion at a university that killed nearly 50 people. And so Zawra Park filled on Wednesday with residents picnicking on the patchy grass, and allowing themselves a bit of optimism.

"I hope that this spring holiday will be accompanied by a spring security," said Ali Jasim, 40, a government employee who brought his children to the park from their home in Sadr City. "And I hope that Iraq will go back as it was."

But the optimism of many parkgoers was wary.

"We are waiting for our death anyhow, whether from a bomb, or a car bomb or at the hands of the militias," said Kamal's friend Mustafa Jamil Ahmed, 23, a slim barber with a black goatee. "So we decided to come here to play poker and tennis. And to take some pictures, so that we can remember each other if one of us is lost."

Outside the park gates, bombs killed at least two people in Baghdad, and unidentified bodies were found in the city, police said. In the northern city of Mosul, a car bombing outside the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a Kurdish political party, killed five and wounded 25.

Just north of Baghdad, in Taji, U.S. forces raided a bomb-making factory, where they killed five suspected militants and detained three others before destroying the building in an airstrike, the U.S. military reported.

Meanwhile, an official with the Interior Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said he could not corroborate a U.S. general's account of a suicide car bombing on Sunday involving children. Maj. Gen. Michael Barbero, deputy director for regional operations on the joint staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that a vehicle passed a U.S. military checkpoint because two children were in the back seat. Two Iraqi police officials, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the account Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

But the Ministry of Interior official said a senior member of the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq who was recently detained told police that extremist groups have outlined plans to "use" adolescents in attacks. No such attacks have been carried out yet, he said.

Also Wednesday, U.S. forces released a top aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's request, said Sadiq al-Rikabi, the prime minister's political adviser. Maliki asked for the discharge of Ahmed Shibani, who had been held for more than two years on suspicion of possessing heavy weapons, because "the investigation about him was finished and he had no reason to stay," Rikabi said. The U.S. military did not respond to an e-mail request for comment.

At Zawra Park, 17-year-old Mariam Hameed bounced a red-and-white soccer ball and laughed as she described her day: swinging on swings, sliding on slides.

"It's for children," she said. "But I feel like I have not lived my childhood."

Special correspondent Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.

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