- Title: IRAQ: Former al-Qaeda base eyed as Iraqi honeymoon hotspot
- Date: 16th March 2008
- Summary: INTERIOR OF DESERTED HOTEL VARIOUS OF RECEPTION HALL CORRIDOR VARIOUS OF HOTEL ROOM HOTEL RESTAURANT
- Embargoed: 31st March 2008 13:00
- Location: Iraq
- Country: Iraq
- Topics: Arts / Culture / Entertainment / Showbiz
- Reuters ID: LVAEG6U4S5TE98WVNJE3QFE0K98U
- Story Text: A lovers' getaway may not appear to be the ideal use for a former al Qaeda stronghold and stage for some of the fiercest battles after the fall of Baghdad, but Amir al-Dulaimi begs to differ.
Dulaimi runs Iraq's crumbling Habaniya Tourist Village, once a wedding venue and honeymoon destination for countless Iraqis but until 2007 at the epicentre of a bloody Sunni Islamist insurgency against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
"Iraqis know that the Tourist Village is located here and they miss it. However the village has been severely impacted since 1990. During the 1990s, its services deteriorated by about 50 percent because of the economic sanctions. After the 2003 war, it went through difficult circumstances as well. The final blow was levelled by the emigration of families from Falluja to the city in 2004 and 2005," Dulaimi, the manager of Habaniya Tourist Village, told Reuters.
This month, potential investors will visit to decide whether to turn it back into a tourist playground and venue for romance.
"I assure you that people, who have gone through hell these past few years, are looking for entertainment. It really saddens me when I talk to officials and they say to me: now is not a time for tourism," he added.
Dulaimi has an ally in his quest to rehabilitate the village located in Iraq's western Anbar province. The U.S. military sees the resort as a potential employer, which could dampen support for al Qaeda among the Sunni Arab region's poor.
Built in 1979, the tourist village is on the shores of Lake Habaniya in Anbar, a former al Qaeda stronghold, and close to the city of Falluja, witness to some of the bloodiest battles between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi forces.
There has been a remarkable turnaround in security in Anbar since local tribal leaders began turning against al Qaeda, a move which roughly coincided with the build-up of 30,000 extra U.S. troops which was completed last June.
Despite the drop in violence, Dulaimi will struggle to lure many Iraqis, particularly those from Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslim sect. They would be too afraid to visit the former al Qaeda stronghold. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims has killed tens of thousands since 2006.
After years of war and sanctions, all that remains of the village's once lush gardens is dirt and scrub. Rusted carousel horses stand suspended in the air, and eerie headless elephants are all that's left of another fairground ride.
Some 400 people who fled fighting in Falluja and Baghdad now live among the village's 565 chalets, and their children scramble among the playground's twisted metal and flaking paint.
"We wish that they (the government) would repair the amusement park so that we could play here," young Ahmed said. "We only have this to play with, all the playgrounds have been destroyed, so we only have this one left."
Captain Leroy Butler, who is part of a U.S. military team responsible for security in Habaniya and the surrounding area, has been trying to help the refugees return home, and his team has started small projects to employ some of the resort's staff.
They are also trying to interest top officials in supporting the reconstruction of Habaniya, initially for use as a conference centre. But despite pledges of support, he has had no luck so far in securing the backing.
Butler estimates that it could cost up to 80 million U.S. dollars to restore the site -- which in the 1980s won a best tourist resort in the Middle East award -- to a basic standard.
During peak holiday periods in the village's heyday up to 5,000 people -- family groups from around the world as well as newlyweds -- would visit, and Iraqis say almost all of their countrymen have been to the village and have fond memories.
Butler has met potential investors in the currently state-owned village, who are due to visit the site this month. The Arab investors include Iraqis and foreigners, he said.
In Falluja, people see the tourist village as their only recreational space.
"I wish they would reopen the Tourist Village. First of all because we have no recreational spaces in Falluja, no public parks, no amusement parks. Second, when tourists start to come here again from Baghdad and elsewhere, the barriers will be removed, we will be open to the world again and people will mix again. It will also generate more recreational spaces," said Nahi Ali Jassim.
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