By Army Sgt. Zach Mott
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 27, 2008 - In what was once a recruiting hotbed for terrorist and illegal militia elements in northern Baghdad, community leaders gathered to celebrate the grand reopening of a pool complex that now serves as a spot of relief for residents. The Asafah pool complex was in such a state of disrepair that residents had long stopped patronizing the pool and squatters had taken up residence there -- some even raising sheep on the pool deck. The pool hall located inside the main building had become a makeshift recruiting center for extremists.
"One of the first patrols we went on was to go assess this pool," said Army Capt. Clint Rusch, a Multinational Division Baghdad fire-support officer with the 4th Infantry Division's Company C, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
Rusch, who along with his unit began operations here in early February, described the scene at the compound. Putrid-smelling water filled the three pools. A concession stand was decrepit, and an outer wall was crumbling, he said.
After that initial patrol, Rusch conferred with Army Maj. Olaf Shibusawa, Steel Company's civil affairs officer, and started hatching a plan of how to make changes there.
Major renovations included repairing the outer wall, remodeling shower rooms and refurbishing the concession stand. Once the other details were decided upon, a contract was awarded and work began in early March. But after hostilities flared up in Sadr City in late March, work was halted for five weeks.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 26 marked the official reopening of the complex, but its doors have been able to remain open for business during refurbishment, collecting about $2 per admission. The accompanying pool hall also remains open and is a popular hangout for residents.
"Our contractor didn't want to drain the pool completely when kids are still using it, so he was able to set it up so the kids could swim while construction was going on. They were working 24 hours a day on the project," Rusch, a Bloomington, Minn., native, said.
Attendance at the Asafah pool is up more than eight times the same time period in 2007. Once the rainy season begins and the pool is no longer being used, Rusch said, the pools will be drained and the tile replaced.
"The perfect end state would be that the project becomes self-sufficient – it doesn't require any American influence to be able to continue," Rusch said.
He said the pool already is headed in that direction, as workers there are able to operate the pumps and are properly cleaning the filters.
"We work hard to satisfy our clients," said Hader Hameed Majid, the Iraqi contractor who oversaw the $200,000 project, adding that he uses some of his profit on each project to give something back.
"I don't lose anything if I cut a share from my profits and give it here for my country," Hader said.
Rusch said he hopes that this pool will become a destination with much the same purpose as swimming pools serve for American children.
"We want the community to have the ability to experience a part of childhood that every kid should have," he said.
(Army Sgt. Zach Mott serves in Multinational Division Baghdad with the 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)