Thamer Saadi sat on the dingy white tiled stoop of his home trying to catch a breeze. The two-story villa with chipped brick walls and broken-out windows used to have one of the most enviable and famous addresses in the capital -- Abu Nawas Street.
During its heyday two decades ago, the wide street, a main north-south traffic artery through the city that follows the gentle curves of the Tigris River, was lined with fish restaurants, nightclubs and a park with grass so lush and soft it felt like a carpet of flower petals. In the summertime when the air cooled and the day waned, families gathered for picnics along the riverbanks, and young men crowded the casinos, drinking and gambling until dawn.
But there is nothing like that now. From his steps, Saadi, 38, viewed the river past the tangles of old fencing, broken concrete, shuttered eateries and garbage collecting in the dirt. No cars passed by because the U.S. military closed a portion of the road 10 months ago to protect the towering hotels on the street that house foreign journalists and contract workers.
"It's like a dying street," Saadi said, shaking his head. A scrawny boy in a dirty shirt, the son of the guard who protects the house, snuggled in Saadi's lap while he talked. "I feel pain. This street was part of our history."
The story of Abu Nawas Street is in large measure the story of postwar Baghdad.
It has been 17 months since U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq pledging, among other things, a better life under democratic rule. But people who live and work on Abu Nawas Street say in many ways, life for them is worse now. They are weary of the suicide bombings, the mounds of garbage and long power outages. They say they no longer believe the promises of reconstruction, despite the signs of slow but measurable progress on Abu Nawas Street.
The street, named after a 9th-century Persian poet, is a treasured place for many Iraqis. Raad Adreeb, 28, said he and his friends used to hang out on Abu Nawas every night after work. "We'd go to the casino or the restaurants to play cards or dominoes," said Adreeb, who owns a shoe shop on Abu Nawas filled with sandals and shoes strung from the ceiling. "We'd stay out until two, three or four in the morning."
The street declined during the 1990s under economic sanctions and the often erratic rule of then-President Saddam Hussein, who closed the park to the public after deeming it a security risk to his palatial headquarters directly across the river. By the time the United States and its allies invaded last year, the park was in a sorry state. But fixing it was not a priority for the U.S.-led occupation authority, which focused on larger reconstruction challenges such as restoring electricity to the country.
Soon after the occupation authority transferred power to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, the mayor of Baghdad, Alaa Mahmood Tamimi, decided that if he were going to heal his city, he would first have to heal Abu Nawas.
At Tamimi's request, members of the U.S. Army's 1st Calvary Division have undertaken an ambitious $1 million project to renovate a two-mile stretch of street and park, creating a pedestrian mall with large grassy meadows, lively restaurants and fountains. Every day for the past month, soldiers have worked alongside Iraqi laborers hired for $5 a day, shoveling dirt, clearing trash and removing an outdated irrigation system.
But Saadi could see none of this from his house. When told of the plans to turn Abu Nawas into the capital's central park, he did not change his expression. He only gathered the boy in his lap closer to him and reached for a silver pitcher of water.
"That's just a rumor," he said, his soft blue eyes blinking against the fine dust the breeze stirred up.
Col. Ken Cox, the chief engineer for the 1st Calvary Division, said the military recognizes that Iraqis are frustrated. But he said the key to winning them over is to make their lives normal again. And that, he said, is the goal behind the restoration of Abu Nawas.
"Under the Saddam regime, Iraqis had nothing they could call their own," Cox said on a recent visit to the street. "Abu Nawas used to be a nightlife place, a place where lovers would come. I know it is only a small part of what all of the soldiers are doing here in Iraq, but if it ultimately helps a portion of Baghdad to return to a sense of normalcy, it increases security."
Cox said the 1st Calvary, which is also coordinating litter removal programs through the city and building water and waste treatment facilities, had not planned to fix Abu Nawas. But he said that when the soldiers met with the mayor last month and asked what they could do for him, Tamimi's first response was "Abu Nawas."
The first day Tamimi toured the street with the 1st Calvary Division soldiers, he ordered that all the security barricades be taken down, opening up the street. The soldiers delicately suggested Tamimi might not want to do that, given the ongoing risks to the hotels on Abu Nawas and to the soldiers protecting them. The barriers remained.
The military said half the road will remain closed to vehicular traffic as a security measure for the hotels. But cars will be able to drive on the other side starting Nov. 1, when the mayor and his military guests plan to host a grand reopening, complete with fireworks.
"Really, Baghdad is now in the battle for peace," Tamimi said in an interview in his office.
As he walked the construction site one blazing hot afternoon, 1st Lt. Brian Mason, who is directing the restoration, pointed to stacks of tiles the soldiers and laborers had pulled up from around the statue of Abu Nawas, a tarnished likeness of the poet crouched with a jug of wine. The mayor has asked that the soldiers save the tiles for use elsewhere in the city.
Tamimi and the municipality have also ordered the soldiers to remove the old tiled moats where fresh fish were kept for people to buy.
An Iraqi worker pounded the concrete around the tanks with a jackhammer, filling the air with the rattle of his machine. "This is one of the few places in Iraq where concrete was constructed properly, and I have to tear it up," Mason said.
Four Army engineering battalions are working on the project: the 239th from Arkansas, the 458th from Pennsylvania, the 411th from Hawaii and the 980th from Texas.
Mason said the project is good for the soldiers whose National Guard and Army Reserve units specialize in construction. "For 31/2 months, it's been a combat operation," he said. "Then we picked up a project like this. We're going to leave here feeling like we've done something for the Iraqi people."
Mageed Jassam, 65, owns a fish restaurant along Abu Nawas that has been closed since the war. The restaurant had no lights, no food, no staff, no customers. Half the tables were broken and dirty. He said he cannot wait for the project to be finished.
"We feel comfortable now, because Saddam is not here and the Americans are protecting us," said Jassam, who wore his gray hair cropped close. "But we wish they would open the street. In the 1970s, this street was like a heaven to us. There was grass. There were children everywhere playing."
Down the street, Thamer Muhsin was dropping hunks of ice into a big blue plastic water jug outside his construction supply store. He looked up when a visitor stopped to talk.
"Oh my God, it's like hell," said Muhsin, sweat dripping off the end of his nose as he lamented the current state of Abu Nawas Street. "Everything in Iraq is a piece of hell."
"I feel sorry when you look at it now," he said "It's dirty. There's trash. And you can see the blocked concrete everywhere."
He said he'd heard the Americans were going to reopen the street. But, he added, "I think it's a rumor."
Special correspondent Luma Mousawi contributed to this report.