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In Baghdad’s Firdos Square, Freedom Day Has Little Meaning

Times Staff Writer

Once, 60 waiters in snazzy white shirts and ties catered each day to hundreds of customers cramming the tables of the Chicken Inn Restaurant, a famous eatery in the shadow of the square where Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down by U.S. Marines and jubilant Iraqis three years ago Sunday.

Americans and Iraqi officials dubbed April 9, 2003, Freedom Day. A new statue went up, an angelic woman holding up a crescent moon symbolizing Islam and a Sumerian sun as an emblem of Iraqi national pride.

But instead of heralding a new age, Freedom Day marked the beginning of the Chicken Inn’s slide into despair. So many car bombs and roadside explosions have been set off in Firdos, or Paradise, Square that few pedestrians dare tread its sidewalks anymore.

“We thought the country was going to be reborn,” said Silow Hanna, the restaurant’s 59-year-old proprietor. “But things are only getting worse.”

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In the Sunni Arab-dominated dusty river cities of western Iraq, continued violence marred Freedom Day, and in the fortress-like Green Zone of Baghdad, political malaise was the order of the day.

At least three civilians died in fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces in Ramadi and Fallouja in Al Anbar province west of the capital in the last two days, police and witnesses said. Iraqi police said dozens of gunmen in Fallouja also caused U.S. casualties at a checkpoint, but U.S. officials did not immediately confirm that account. A group of gunmen nearby also reportedly attacked Iraqi soldiers.

U.S. forces killed eight suspected insurgents in a village 15 miles northwest of Baghdad in an air and ground assault on a suspected hide-out and a nearby tent, a news release said.

In Baghdad on Sunday, car bombs and shootings left at least eight dead.

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And on the airwaves during Freedom Day, Iraqi television stations showed newly surfaced video footage from hand-held cameras of masked insurgents battling U.S. and Iraqi forces.

In the Green Zone, the months-long effort to form a new national government continued to falter. On Sunday, the dominant Shiite Muslim political coalition dispatched a three-person committee to gauge the depth of opposition to interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, the Shiite candidate seeking to retain his post for a full, four-year term. Both Sunni Arabs and Kurds said they were adamant in their opposition to Jafari.

“We have been rejecting Jafari for more than three months, and it will be a joke if we change our position regarding this issue,” said Mahmoud Mashadani, a member of the main Sunni Arab bloc. “It’s a matter of principle.”

Kurds oppose Jafari because of perceptions that he opposes the loose federal state they seek and did not share power with the Kurdish president during his year as interim prime minister.

Iraqis and American officials worry that the political stalemate has worsened a security vacuum in the country, but many doubt whether any future government can heal Iraq’s wounds any time soon.

Just across the Tigris River from the Green Zone at Firdos Square, the Palestine and Ishtar hotels, once catering to wealthy foreign visitors, are nearly empty. Both hotels were already in a state of shabby decline when a pair of massive truck bombs exploded outside the guarded hotel complex in October and made them nearly unlivable.

The Alwiya club, once an upscale social watering hole with tennis courts and a band shell, has been all but shuttered, its well-heeled members too terrified to visit lest they be kidnapped or gunned down.

The 14th of Ramadan Mosque, the famous blue-domed house of worship so often pictured in television coverage as an icon of Iraq, is blocked off with a chain-link fence, opened only for certain visitors.

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“For now, this square symbolizes a space of sorrow, agony and pain,” said Mohammed Ahmed Qaisi, who works at a currency exchange, departing the mosque after midday prayers.

These days, the site where joyous Iraqis jumped up and down on Hussein’s toppled statue is ringed with concrete barricades to protect nearby buildings. Except for rowdy demonstrations by supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, few Iraqis venture here. Newly planted wildflowers and greenery sit forlorn.

During a quick visit to the Chicken Inn Restaurant at lunchtime Sunday, not a single customer entered.

“Although we’re in the middle of the city, the streets are all blocked and the area is very dangerous,” Hanna, the owner, said.

He boasted that his restaurant was founded 40 years ago, a Baghdad institution. But his head hung in dismay as he admitted having been forced to lay off 90% of his staff because of a dearth of diners.

He now employs only four waiters.

All sat idly, staring into space as Hanna dug a spoon into a hefty plate of chicken and rice. Three years ago, he says, he thought his central location and the square’s historic status would make the restaurant a hot tourist destination.

Instead, “nobody comes here anymore,” he said.

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Times staff writers in Baghdad and special correspondents in Fallouja, Kirkuk and Ramadi contributed to this report.


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