Hip, new Baghdad hangout is a byproduct of war

Akkad Street is a neighborhood's response to suicide bombers hitting the main shopping market.

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    An Iraqi family window shops along Akkad Street.
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    CURBSIDE ICE CREAM: An Iraqi boy watches his friend eat a dish of ice cream on Akkad Street, a safe section of Baghdad that has flourished economically.
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A group of four teenage boys sharing two mopeds buzz up and down Baghdad's trendy Akkad Street and covertly gawk at passing women.

Lined with hip restaurants, coffeehouses, and clothing stores – including the latest in Western and Islamic fashions – it is the place to be seen.

It's now the Iraqi teenagers' equivalent of the American mall.

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Before the invasion, Akkad was a residential street without so much as a corner store. But along with a handful of other new commercial districts throughout Baghdad, Akkad Street was born of necessity.

When suicide bombers began targeting major markets, residents no longer felt safe leaving their neighborhoods. Local entrepreneurs responded by converting the lower levels of their houses into bakeries and barber shops, giving their neighbors a safer alternative.

Today, even though violence has fallen to a four-year low in Iraq, many residents and Iraq experts agree that such changes to Baghdad's commercial and cultural topography will be permanent.

"The sectarian violence changed the map of Baghdad's commercial centers," says Abbas al-Tememi, an economics professor at Baghdad University. "The problems in the big markets created new, smaller markets, but these markets have not replaced the main ones."

Ahmed Sadiq, who works in an upscale clothing store on Akkad Street, says that "the worst situation imaginable pushed people to start this street."

Like many of the other residents of Khadimiya, Mr. Sadiq is a displaced Shiite from the south of Baghdad. But he's not your typical down-and-out refugee; he comes from a relatively affluent family.

Even before displaced families began arriving in the neighborhood at the peak of sectarian fighting in 2005, Khadimiya was a relatively upscale neighborhood. But when folks like Sadiq began arriving, they brought investment capital and healthy consumer spending habits.

Marwan Sabah was among the first to open a business on Akkad Street several months after the US-led invasion of Iraq. Initially, he hoped his coffee shop would compete with other popular hangouts in the Adhamiya district just across the Tigris River.

Though his shop was an underdog when it first opened, by 2005 Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents had shut down Adhamiya, indirectly giving Mr. Sabah's business a boost. Shiites who used to relax in coffeehouses across the river didn't feel comfortable driving through Adhamiya, let alone hanging out there.

"The situation helped us," says Sabah, who adds that his shop has become a destination for many of the young people who cruise the strip.

Despite these periodic incidents of violence, in the last two years the residents say the commercial strip has blossomed, growing from a handful of businesses to more than a half-mile strip of shops.

"Starting in 2007, each day you could see at least two or three new shops being built," says Abu Sajad al-Jabouri, who opened a restaurant on Akkad Street early this year.

Initially, Mr. Jabouri worried whether his kabob and hamburger restaurant would stay afloat, but today he's expanding the dining area. "People feel safe investing their money again," he says. "Now it all depends on God, but every day is better than the last."

As security has improved across Iraq, the main markets are beginning to revive. With half as many deaths from suicide or vehicle attacks compared with last year, as of Oct. 22, according to iraqbodycount.org, many Iraqis are venturing out of their neighborhoods and back to the traditional meeting points.

But even if violence continues to decline in Iraq the war has drastically altered traffic in Baghdad. Road closures, checkpoints, and maintenance issues mean that a drive that might have taken only five or 10 minutes before the war, could, on a bad day, take more than an hour.

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