BAGHDAD - U.S. and Iraqi officials opened a water treatment plant in Baghdad's Sadr City slum on Wednesday three and a half years after they began it, a sign that the area is finally quiet enough for long-promised reconstruction work.
The $65 million plant provides water for 200,000 people -- just a tenth of the population of the vast slum on Baghdad's eastern outskirts where the need is most desperate for repairs to infrastructure wrecked by decades of war and sanctions.
Sadr City was controlled by Shi'ite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and off limits to the central authorities until last May, when U.S. and Iraqi forces recaptured it after weeks of heavy fighting.
The government and U.S. forces have since promised to resume long-delayed reconstruction in the area, which they say is crucial to ensuring that militants do not return.
"This is the real answer to terrorism," Baghdad Mayor Sabre al-Essawy said at an opening ceremony at the new plant, where a U.S. Army brass band in heavy body armour, helmets and protective goggles played festive marches.
Since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the United States has appropriated nearly $50.8 billion for reconstruction projects in Iraq. But work has been slow and much of the money was spent on security rather construction.
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Iraqis still have electricity for only a few hours a day, and much of the country has inadequate clean water and sewage services.
The eastern half of Baghdad suffers from severe water shortages, especially in summer. It includes Sadr City, which grew rapidly over the last few decades of Saddam Hussein's rule to house some 2 million poor Shi'ites displaced from the south.
The Sadr City water treatment plant, with 10 filters that can each clean 400 cubic metres of water an hour, was begun in July 2005 but brought on line just at the end of last year.
"Like many things in Iraq, this project was hard to complete," U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker said. "It took great determination, great courage to see this through."