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Young Iraqis in Baghdad hold a peace carnival

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Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters

(Read caption) An Iraqi woman attended the Baghdad City of Peace Carnival Sept. 21.

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During the past few months, young Iraqis met each evening in a sparsely furnished building in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood to do something revolutionary – rebrand their city from one of war to one of peace.

Baghdad, best known in recent years for bombings, kidnappings, and terror, is also the heart and soul of Iraq’s culture. It is the New York City of Mesopotamia – cosmopolitan, diverse, and dynamic. And since the first carnival four years ago, young people have worked to reclaim that image through the annual Baghdad City of Peace Carnival.

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The Sept. 21 event, attended this year by more than 15,000 people, provided opportunities for some 500 young people to volunteer, collaborating across political, ethnic, and religious lines in an effort to show the positive side of Baghdad that they see.

This year’s carnival included displays of paintings and handicrafts from local artists, readings of traditional poetry, performances by Iraqi and Western-style musicians, a book fair, free health checkups from medical students, and fundraising  by local organizations.

For Caesar Alwardii, the carnival is a second job. “I work from 8 to 4 every day, and then I come here,” he explains. “I spend more time on this than my actual job because this makes me happy.”

Now the idea of the carnival may be spreading.

“Our goal is that next year every province in Iraq, on one day, will have a Day of Peace,” he says.

Mr. Alwardii, a photographer, attended the carnival in 2011 only because his friends were going. Impressed with what he saw, he has become more involved each year. Today he holds the title of media coordinator. Next year he would like someone new to take over that post and bring fresh ideas.

“These guys,” Alwardii says, gesturing to a group of high school students, “are the target group – high school and college students.... We want 60 percent new volunteers every year who have never done Peace Day before, never been volunteers before, so that we can reach as many people as possible.... This carnival gives hope to young people. It reminds people that there are things to be proud of and happy about in Baghdad.”

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This year, the carnival took place on the heels of protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. They began in response to a heat wave that left the city without adequate water, which brought people into the streets to demand better services.

Even after temperatures cooled, the protesters remained, insisting on better governance.

“We want the removal of the head of the justice department,” says Noof Assi, one of the organizers of the carnival and a leader in the demonstrations. “He’s corrupt. He hasn’t done anything in 12 years, and he’s actually made things worse.”

Thousands of people demonstrated a few weeks ago, but by the time the carnival opened, “it was way less. I could have walked around the square without people pushing or anything,” she says.

The carnival and protests are only small symbols of progress, but Ms. Assi sees them as a sign of hope for a better future, especially as struggling Iraqis continue to flee to Europe.

“At least we are trying, and we keep pushing,” she says. “It’s better than just sitting at home, or thinking,... ‘let’s go to Turkey, and then swim to Greece.’

“Let’s try it this way first,” Assi says with a wry smile. “At least there’s no water in Tahrir Square.”