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With fanfare, Iraqi government reopens landmark street largely barricaded since US invasion

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    BAGHDAD — The smell of grilled fish and the sound of children’s laughter provided moments of joy for many Iraqis Saturday as the government reopened Abu Nawas Street, a famous riverside promenade that has been largely barricaded from the public since the U.S.-led invasion.
    The Iraqi government hailed the renovation of the street — named for a ninth century poet and once known for its art galleries — as a sign of improved security. But the presence of U.S. troops and armed private security guards underscored the fragility of the new signs of calm.
    Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander for Baghdad, recalled the concrete barriers that once lined the street before a U.S.-Iraqi security operation began in mid-February to quell spiraling violence.
    ‘‘The reconstruction of Abu Nawas is considered one of the bright results,’’ he said during the opening ceremonies. But he warned the fight was not over, saying ‘‘we realize that the enemy will not lay down his weapons as easily as some would think, but we are determined to defeat them.’’
    Abu Nawas Street, which sits on the east side of the Tigris River, was long a popular retreat for Iraqis with its old eucalyptus trees and trademark fish restaurants.
    But it became a no-go zone shortly after U.S. Marines toppled Saddam Hussein’s statue at the nearby Firdous Square in 2003 and hundreds of American troops moved into the Palestine Hotel, an 18-story tower standing halfway along the street.
    Soon most of the smart apartment blocks built for officers of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard were abandoned, their occupants fleeing out of fear of reprisals. Squatters, mostly Shiites from the capital’s poorest districts or the south of the country, moved in.
    Mortars fired from eastern Baghdad toward the U.S.-protected Green Zone just across the river often have fallen short, crashing into the street, the park or the wide Tigris.
    Areas close to the street, such as the mainly Shiite Karradah district and Tahrir Square, have seen some of worst bombings blamed on insurgents. Late-night gunfights still rage on Firdous Square and adjacent streets.
    To reopen the street, giant cranes removed or rearranged hundreds of blast barriers and tons of barbed wire. Grass was planted in the park, foot bridges built and children’s swings and benches installed. Restaurants and other businesses were refurbished and owners were promised cash grants to get them through what promises to be a slow start.
    The opening was delayed several times because of security concerns, and Saturday’s celebration was heavily guarded by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
    Salam Jabar, a 37-year-old father of eight, made the trek from Baghdad’s main Shiite district of Sadr City with his family, saying the street’s reopening was a sign of success of the Baghdad security plan.
    ‘‘At first, when I saw the heavily deployed forces on the street, I was reluctant to attend the celebration, but I did not want to let my children down so I went ahead with it,’’ he said, sitting on a bench with his wife and watching their children playing on the swings and other playground equipment.
    ‘‘This is a great day that shows that Iraq is witnessing security,’’ he said.
    The street still has not regained a full sense of normalcy.
    Before the reopening, several dozen families who lived along the avenue were screened for links to Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida in Iraq or Shiite militiamen. Side streets have been blocked by concrete barriers.
    No parking will be allowed and access will be controlled by checkpoints. A platoon of U.S. soldiers will patrol the street around the clock and additional security will be provided by Iraqi policemen and private security guards.

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