LAKE HABBANIYA, Iraq — A few hours outside Baghdad in the middle of Iraq’s vast western desert is a sight that could understandably be mistaken for a mirage: a long, sandy beach filled with thousands of people swimming and dancing barefoot under the hot sun without apparent care. A disc jockey — “Mr. D. J.,” he calls himself — is shouting into a microphone over a thumping Syrian dance song and blurts out something remarkable in its ordinariness.“A shoutout to everyone from Baghdad!” he says in Arabic.“Yea!” responds the crowd that has gathered around him.“Everyone from Adhamiya and Sadr City who came from Baghdad, show me what you got!” Mr. D. J. yells, referring to two neighborhoods in the capital — the first almost exclusively Sunni, the second nearly entirely Shiite.In response, energetic dancing breaks out all around, and Sunnis and Shiites share a rare moment of careless bliss together. It is amazing, but it is real: for the first time since the outbreak of the sectarian war in 2006, Iraq is enjoying a beach season.The water at Lake Habbaniya in Anbar Province is muddy, and today, a sandstorm has blotted out the sun. Back home, few people have air-conditioning or dependable electricity. And already this month, hundreds of Iraqis have died in the violence that continues to envelop the country.All that, say the sunbathers, is why a day at the beach is so important. “I’m here to get away — from the bombs in Baghdad, from the sound of generators,” said Aya Alshemari, a 22-year-old college student who, despite the fact that she was wearing a modest T-shirt and jeans, was drawing the gazes of dozens of male beachgoers. “We’re here to have a good time. There’s no difference between Shiite and Sunni. We are all Iraqis.”Most people had driven their cars right onto the sand, pulling up next to the water. And because it is Iraq, each vehicle has been carefully checked for explosives and every beachgoer frisked for a suicide bomb vest. On this particular August day, though, there is nothing more harmful than 115-degree heat and high-calorie food: beef and lamb kebabs, biryani, fried kibbeh. A few young men take furtive sips of cold beer. Read more!
In the late 1930s and 1940s Lake Habbaniyah was used by Imperial Airways as a refueling point and hotel for flying boats flying from the United Kingdom to India. Nearby on the banks of the Euphrates had already been established the Royal Air Force airbase of RAF Dhibban, later renamed RAF Habbaniya.
Habbaniya is now also the site of a major United States military base known as Al Taqqadum.