Friday, August 8, 2008

Obama came and went, but not until today did Hope arrive in Iraq

And Riley, too.

Sometimes the news of progress in Iraq begins here at home:

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Baghdad Zoo on Friday welcomed a pair of rare Bengal tiger cubs that were donated by a North Carolina animal sanctuary despite protests by animal rights activists.

The tigers — a male and a female named Riley and Hope — frolicked with red and blue balls in a wading pool and playfully wrestled with each other in their cage, while U.S. soldiers and journalists snapped pictures and delighted Iraqis strolled by.

The animals, which were donated by the North Carolina-based Conservators' Center, arrived Monday after being flown to Baghdad from the United States in a $66,000 trip funded by the U.S. Embassy and transported to the zoo by the U.S. military.

Like many other Iraqi institutions, the Baghdad Zoo is struggling to emerge from years of devastation amid the violence that followed the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and officials showed off the tigers as proof of progress.

"This is a good day for the tigers, the zoo and the people of Iraq," zoo director Adel Salman Mousa said at a news conference at the park in central Baghdad. [...]

The Conservators' Center, a nonprofit sanctuary and conservation breeding facility in Mebane, North Carolina, said it decided to send the tigers to Baghdad to help boost restoration efforts and education work at the zoo. [...]

Mousa also said he hoped to add more in the future to provide important educational opportunities for Iraqi youths. An elephant and a giraffe were at the top of his wish list. [...]

The zoo, which was established in 1973 and owned by Saddam's feared son, Odai, has enjoyed a revival with the recent decline in violence, boasting an average of 2,000-3,000 visitors on weekdays and 10,000 on the weekend, according to Mousa. That was up from about 120 per day in 2006, when sectarian attacks were pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

Ahmed al-Dairy, 38, brought his wife and three young sons to the zoo for the third time this year, saying it was the only decent public place to enjoy a day out in the heavily barricaded capital.

"Last year it was a very bad situation in Baghdad, but now it is good," he said, standing in front of a cage holding two lions that was adjacent to the tigers. "Still there are bombings, but we must adapt to this."

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