Iraqis chill out at lake resort far from country's woes
Jet skis skim across the lake as families picnic on the shores: a resort just west of Baghdad is an oasis of relative calm that offers escape from bombs, shootings and political squabbling.
The Habbaniyah Tourism City, which lies between Fallujah and Ramadi, two of the main Sunni insurgent strongholds of past years, offers swimming, boating and a cinema.
Hundreds of people relax on the beach to escape the violence, political chaos and lack of basic services that define everyday life in Iraq.
"I come here every week with my family and friends to escape from the daily problems like unemployment ... politics and sectarianism," said Abdul Rahman Mohammed, 25, an unemployed university graduate.
"When we see the Iraqis here, they are not Sunni, or Shiite, Kurd or Christian, and they have smiles on their faces, we forget everything else," said Mohammed, who holds a bachelor's degree in administration and economics.
His brother, 29-year-old Abdul Qader, who has a degree in history and is also unemployed, said European tourists should "come here to see the real Iraq."
The Habbaniyah Tourism City, which includes a 300-room hotel, 528 chalets, docks for boats, a cinema, shops, sports fields and five restaurants, originally opened in 1979.
But it fell on hard times after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of neighbouring Kuwait and decade of international sanctions that followed.
The situation worsened after the 2003 US-led invasion, when insurgents used the area as a base.
"Terrorist groups set up their headquarters in the city in 2006 and 2007 because it is in an isolated desert area and American forces were not present," said Captain Laurens Saad al-Essawi, the deputy police chief.
But "we entered the city in 2008 and were able to clean it from the terrorists and it has been safe since then," he added.
A year later Habbaniyah was back in business.
Jet skis ply the lake all day, while families sit under small coloured tents on the shore with the men entertaining the children and the women, most of whom wear headscarves, preparing meals.
The resort "doesn't belong to any specific sect," the resort's director general, Hamid Abbud Tarrad said.
"All Iraqis from north to south have nice memories (of Habbaniyah), since 90 percent of Iraqis have visited it," he said.
The lakeside resort reopened in March 2009 and 5,000 visitors were there for the ceremony, Tarrad said.
"We now receive between 5,000 to 10,000 people during the holidays and about 30,000 on feasts and special occasions," Tarrad said.
Oasis of calm
At the beginning of the year a Turkish company began rehabilitating the resort, with plans on managing the site over the next 25 years.
"We hope that the city... will regain its historical position on the Arab and international tourism map," said Tarrad, noting that in 1982 Tourism City was voted the best resort in the region by the World Tourism Organisation.
Habbaniyah is not without its problems, however.
Rubbish is strewn on the beach and floating in the lake.
Recently a fight involving dozens of people wielding knives and sticks broke out -- apparently over a woman -- and was only stopped when members of the security forces showed up and drew their pistols.
But compared to the rest of Iraq, Habbaniyah is still an oasis of calm.
While violence in Iraq has declined from its peak in 2006 and 2007, bombings and shootings are a reality of everyday life, killing 132 people in May, according to official figures.
And the country has been hit by a series of intertwined political crises that began with accusations that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was monopolising power and escalated into calls for his ouster.
The Iraqi government is paralysed, and most people have to live with woefully inadequate basic services, especially when it comes to electricity and clean water.
"I used to come here before the collapse (of Saddam's regime), and today we have returned to Habbaniyah," said Umm Baqr, a 40-year-old who works at the education ministry.
"We only feel happy when we swim. The water is our only breathing space," she said.