Only five years after U.S. warplanesrained down “shock and awe” on Iraq, decimating towns and families, a few rich Californians have figured out how to counter the mortar attacks, suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism that continue to ravage the capital city, Baghdad.
Build an amusement park.
Not enough excitement in machine-gun fire and cars blowing up? Soon, thanks to some Los Angeles–area venture capitalists, Iraqis may have what every adrenaline junkie really craves — thrill rides. They may also get a museum and concert theater. There is talk of a water park. Plans are in motion to reopen the zoo, so people can look at tigers, monkeys and snakes. It is all part of a $500 million project set for development near Baghdad’s notorious Green Zone, where fears of violence are so great that fortresslike walls shield streets and buildings.
They even expect to give the “Baghdad Zoo and Entertainment Experience,” as the 50-acre complex will be known, a bit of a Los Angeles touch. If the initial phase opens later this year, it will include a feature every young Iraqi boy secretly longs for — a skateboard park, enhanced with 2,000 free skateboards for local children.
“Why would people put a skateboard park in Iraq?” a spokeswoman for the project asks, as if repeating a question that keeps coming up no matter what she does. “The Iraqi youth are aware of skateboarding. … That’s a worldwide youth culture.”
Although its exact scope and design are far from complete, the multiphase complex has the support of U.S. officials, including the Pentagon, and appears to be a done deal despite a deafening siren wail from the critics. It’s a pet project of Los Angeles financier Llewellyn “Llew” Werner, who was California’s Secretary of Business and Transportation under former Gov. Jerry Brown.
These days, Werner is chairman of newly formed Customized Cooperative Capital, or C3, but he’s harder to find than D.B. Cooper. The company appears to be unlisted, and there’s no Web site. A spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified because the Baghdad project hasn’t been formally announced, offers only the vaguest sense of who the man really is.
“I can’t even get Llew’s bio from Llew,” she says. “He’s been so darned busy.” C3 is based in the Los Angeles area, she adds mysteriously, but it is “a rather virtual organization.
“What C3 does is … [look] at places around the world that are a little too risky for traditional investment, but at the same time need development,” the spokeswoman says. Iraq is not the only challenging location C3 is eyeing. But the project has drawn media attention — a quick mention in the London Times a few weeks ago, followed by reports on public radio. C3 plans to assemble teams of design and construction experts who will work in cooperation with locals.
The plan’s not getting much media attention yet, so when L.A. Weekly contacted a couple of famous locals in Baghdad — two brothers, both dentists, who have blogged for years on their widely read Web site, Iraq the Model (www.iraqthemodel.blogspot.com) — they gave it a battle-worn review.
“Yes, it will be a soft target, just like countless soft targets in Baghdad … campuses, marketplaces and residential areas, all under more or less constant threat of indirect fire — mortar [and] rocket attacks,” says Omar Fadhil, who clearly would like to see a revival. “Should we be concerned about the safety of visitors? Yes. Should we halt all investment [and] reconstruction projects because of that? Should we tell or expect students and shoppers to suspend their normal daily activities? No.”
Werner’s strange ideagrew out of a trip he took to Iraq not long ago with a business colleague. C3 is barely off the ground but already is in talks with Earth Organization, an international nonprofit group founded in South Africa, about ways to reconstruct the war-damaged zoo, the spokeswoman adds. And C3 is discussing the amusement park’s design with Ride & Show Engineering Inc. in San Dimas, co-founded by engineers who helped create Disneyland and the Epcot theme park.
The notion of plunking down a Disneyland in Baghdad is “a bit of a stretch,” the spokeswoman admits, saying, “we’re defining the appropriate scope of the work in conjunction with local officials.”
But the very thought of such a thing is drawing worldwide attention — most of it negative. Since the London Times broke the story, blogs and Web message boards have lit up like pinball machines.
A “Mickey Mouse idea.” “Goofy.” “Insanity.” “Ridiculous.”
Wolfgang R., posting from Austria, comments, “I know many Americans tend to be ignorant about other foreign cultures, but I never would have thought that anyone could be THIS ignorant. … Hundreds of thousands killed … daily bombings … but a Disney park built by Americans to make money.”
“Disney’s House of Horrors,” offers another critic, as a possible marketing slogan. “The only amusement park in the world where the rides actually blow up!”
But honestly, what’s the plan? “Do you deliver your visitors there in armored cars? Are you going to issue flak jackets to everybody who comes through the turnstiles and tell them to enjoy themselves?” wonders John J. Posey, president of Corporate Security Services, based, aptly enough, in Battle Ground, Washington. “I don’t know how you could do it. It’s a concept that’s just baffling.”
Posey, one of several security specialists contacted by the Weekly, says a standard risk analysis would unearth several deal breakers: People massed together, enjoying themselves — there is no more classic “soft target” — in a development that symbolizes American excess, smack in the midst of a fundamentalist nation that’s a hotbed of terrorism. “The combination just looks unfathomable,” he says. “The only thing I know of that would probably draw more immediate malign would be if somebody went there and opened up an American topless club.”
C3 stresses that the project will create jobs as well as provide a place for Iraqis to enjoy themselves, the spokeswoman says. “We are looking at creating something that is totally keeping in the spirit of the park” where it will be built, she says. Conceding that “it looks on paper to be a risky venture,” she says, “How do you make it less risky? Bring in experts and also engage that community. People think we’re going to have this American-style amusement park and just drop it in there. No, it’s being done hand-in-hand with Iraqi officials.”
Still, there is always the chance that some enterprising zealot will lob mortars over the wall to knock out the Ferris wheel, experts say. Or fire rockets at Baghdad’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean from a mile away.
“The first two words that come to my mind,” says Bob Bonasia, a former Secret Service agent who heads Bonasia Security Consulting in Greensboro, North Carolina, “are logistical nightmare. Obviously, it will be a major target. You couldn’t possibly secure an area like that.”
Jack R. Plaxe, managing director of the Chicago-based firm Anti-terrorism Training, Research, Intelligence & Security Consulting, or AT-RISC, also cites deadly projectiles.
“I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t want to take my family to an amusement park where you’re having mortars and rockets land,” he says. “Any project that’s going to be featuring Americans or that has American support is going to lend itself to being a target. There are far more pressing issues that have to be dealt with before a facility like this becomes feasible.”
The Los Angeles money men are undaunted. The C3 spokeswoman emphasizes that Werner has been on the ground in Baghdad and knows the issues. Before the U.S. invasion, the proposed site, al-Zawra park, was a favorite place to relax, much like New York’s Central Park. Families are beginning to picnic there again. A new, all-but-impermeable $700 million U.S. Embassy has been built on Green Zone land nearby that has jumped in value. Some imagine a Baghdad that showcases development, albeit one bristling with weaponry.
“There has to be, at some level, a spark of optimism,” the spokeswoman says. “We Americans focus on the negative because it makes headlines. Can we guarantee security? No, we can’t. No one can do that.”