There's something surreal about wearing a flak jacket and helmet to go to an amusement park. But that's exactly what a group of reporters is doing on a recent afternoon in Baghdad, visiting a once-popular park complex that the U.S. Army is trying to help revive.
The whole thing seems like overkill. A unit from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division is taking reporters to visit a reconstruction project north of Baghdad. That means donning body armor and a helmet for a Black Hawk helicopter flight over the city. The gear makes American soldiers look lethal, but it just makes aging correspondents like me look — and feel — silly.
The helicopters stir up the usual whirlwinds of dust as they land near a bend in the Tigris River. Then a convoy of Humvees and armored trucks rumbles for a quarter-mile or so down a dusty, rutted road. Destination: Fantasy Island.
Actually, it's called Baghdad Island, an amusement park popular during the rule of Saddam Hussein — an oasis at the edge of the desert where Iraqi families used to come to picnic, promenade and paddle boats around a lagoon lined with palms and olive trees.
Army Col. Maria Zumwalt is leading reporters on the tour of Baghdad Island. She is a diminutive woman whose full combat gear looks incongruous next to the director of the park, Nasir Hameed, a tall man in a black suit and open-collared shirt.
The architecture of the buildings is the monumental style favored by Saddam, including an observation tower that looms overhead like a 150-foot-tall birdbath.
But Hameed says it's only the beginning of what could be a world-class gathering place.
He says that after the 2003 invasion, looters stripped the park of nearly everything that could be moved, including the pumps that kept the lagoon filled with water. Zumwalt's battalion provided nearly $500,000 to install a new pumping system and clear debris from the dried-up waterways.
Glen Keiser, the leader of a State Department reconstruction team that has been helping with the project, says the Army isn't aiming to compete with Six Flags, but the project is designed to give local people a sense of normalcy and stimulate Iraqi business.
"I don't want to say 'an amusement park,' " Keiser says with laugh. "Let's remember that this is an Iraqi-driven project. And, in fact, their vision is to bring rides here, an amusement park, actually to attract private investors to the restaurants, to the hotel, and also, an amusement park."
Keiser says the Iraqi tourism board has committed far more money, about $1.5 million to date, to get part of the area ready for visitors. Hameed, the park's director, says they are hoping to lease the park's restaurants and find an investor to build a five-star hotel.
Tourism officials have started work on a new boathouse and are arranging to buy the boats that families used to pedal around the lagoon. Hameed says they are hoping to reopen in late November.
On this day, the visit is over. The American soldiers and the reporters file back to the waiting armored trucks, odd-looking figures in an otherwise peaceful landscape. Maybe it's a sign of improving security that American military gear looks increasingly out of place here, and amusement parks look increasingly normal.