Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Martin Chulov, Baghdad Australian Age Newspaper Road rules: Gridlock in the streets of Baghdad. Photo: AFP A YEAR ago it would have been unthinkable. After all, it was a city where driving to work became a life-or-death decision and where residents were cooped in enclaves amid murder and mayhem. But the Mayor of Baghdad has surprised everyone by announcing plans for an underground rail network that would literally carve a swathe through the city's sectarian lines. If investors sign up, the world's most violent capital will soon have a $US3 billion ($A4.6 billion) metro. Mayor Sabir al-Issawi said money had been set aside in next year's budget for a feasibility study. And if if goes ahead, the Iraqi Government has earmarked money that it says could build most of the two mooted rail lines without private help. Even the country's optimists were last night calling the plan ambitious, but lauding its audacity. In a city where raw waste often spills from an antique sewer system, power goes off hourly, a postal service does not exist and public transport has long been a fantasy, lofty ideas have recently been capturing imaginations. Last month planning got under way for an above-ground commuter train line in the city's west, which is set to remove thousands of cars from an approach to Baghdad known as bomb alley. And since then, a series of roads and a highly symbolic bridge have reopened to cars and pedestrians. The al-Aaimmah bridge linking the mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya and the predominantly Shiite district of Khademiya was opened last Tuesday, three years after nearly 1000 Shiite pilgrims died in a stampede on the span. And Berlin-style walls put in place to keep Shiites and Sunnis apart have gradually come down. Baghdad's civic planners seem intent on making connections. But the small steps they have taken so far pale next to the grand plan for a metro. A rail line under Baghdad was first flagged under Saddam Hussein during the 1970s, but shelved owing to three decades of war, blockades and invasion. One of the proposed lines would run 18 kilometres from Shiite-dominated Sadr City in the east to Adhamiya in north Baghdad. The other would run 21 kilometres, linking central Baghdad to the primarily Sunni western suburbs. Each line would have 20 stations. They run through a patchwork of sectarian neighbourhoods, which largely remain divided, despite the security improvements. Bombs still rattle Baghdad daily, but on a much smaller scale than the violence that ravaged the capital throughout 2006-07. "If anyone suggested a train back then, they would have been sent to one of Saddam's old mental homes and never heard from again," said Umm Fatimah, 41, from the suburb of Karada. "Even now it does seem a bit crazy." Another Karada resident, Nazem al-Qasemi, said something had to be done to unclog Baghdad's arterial roads. The project's engineer, Atta Nabil Hussain Auni Atta, of Iraq's Transport Ministry, said 1970s blueprints for the underground line were being redrawn to bring it up to the specifications of modern railways. "This is one of Baghdad's most important projects and we hope that investors will join it," he said. "We have called for tenders from them … We are planning to start work as early as next year. "This has been postponed so many times because of war and chaos, but this time we are sure it will happen."