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Mall 'means all change in Iraq'
The day-to-day life of Iraqis is continuing to improve as the country gradually recovers from years of conflict, a British diplomat has claimed.
Mark Bryson-Richardson, British Charge d'Affaires in Iraq, said although there are still challenges in the country, it has experienced "momentous change" and significant steps forward.
His comments come as Iraq prepares to head into its fourth national elections next year: a hugely different position to that a decade ago.
British and US troops invaded Iraq in 2003 but as 2004 dawned, the country was a bloody scene of violence and remained that way for several years.
UK combat operations did not officially finish until 2009, followed by the US the following year, many years after the invasion.
Security remains a contentious issue in Iraq, with regular suicide bombings plaguing the country today.
But officials insist that things are better than they ever have been.
In November the opening of a branch of Standard Chartered in Baghdad - the first British bank to open a branch in Iraq - was hailed as a milestone in the country's "recovery".
At the opening, Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki said it was a sign of international trust in the country and the ongoing relationship between the UK and Iraq.
Mr Bryson-Richardson has insisted that improvements are continuing.
He told the Press Association: "Iraq has experienced momentous change over the past 10 years.
"It is about to head into its fourth national elections and has also successfully held provincial elections: a significant step forward for a country so recently embroiled in dictatorship and conflict.
"Iraq has moved out of Chapter VII of the UN Charter and has one of the world's fastest-growing economies, with a growth rate of 8.4%.
"On a day-to-day basis, Iraqis are seeing a more open media, have access to more goods and services, and are engaging in a public debate about the future of their country.
"But, as reflected in the government of Iraq's own priorities, significant challenges still remain, notably the security situation; the establishment of an inclusive political system that brings together all the different communities in Iraq; and translating Iraq's growth and oil wealth into improved public services and standards of living."
Nowhere is the change to Iraqis' everyday lives more obvious than the Mansour Mall: a new shopping centre in Baghdad.
Home to a cinema, restaurants, children's area and shops, including British staple Clarks, the centre which opened in 2013 could be in any western country.
Managing director Ammar al-Khafaji said: "In 1966 the first mall in the Middle East was in Iraq. After that when Sadddam Hussein came, we are the last country in the world. This is a new thing here in Baghdad.
"In our mall we have everything. We have restaurants, we have shops, we have a kids area, we have a cinema. We have entertainment, games."
There are around 25,000 visitors a day, swelling to around 40,000 in holidays or the weekend, all attracted not only by the shops but by the safety the centre provides, he said.
A security scanner greets people as they walk in, while security staff man the roofs of buildings across the streets and CCTV cameras cover every centimetre of the mall.
With Western brands like Clarks and Marks & Spencer in the mall, Mr al-Khafaji claims that it symbolises a "new life" for people in Iraq.
"This is the new Iraq, the new life of Iraq," he said.
"The malls will build a new culture, a new era for the people.
"I tried to get Starbucks, and we already signed with KFC. They are coming here. This is just the start."
Photography student Haider Muhamed, 22, who comes to the centre every day with his friends, said: "It's nice. It's safe. The street isn't safe but it is safe here."
In Clarks, worker Murtatha Alaa said people buy the British brand because it is a symbol of quality.
"They come because of the shoe. It's well made and because it's from the UK," he said.
"We have known the UK shoes. They were in Iraq and (the Iraqi people) have the expectation that everything made in the UK is the first-class thing."
Mr Bryson-Richardson said Iraq continues to strengthen its ties with the international community, including the UK.
"The UK is working to increase trade, investment, educational and cultural links," he said.
"Thousands of students from across Iraq are studying in the UK. Standard Chartered - one of Britain's leading financial institutions - recently opened a head office and first branch in Iraq.
"The largest-ever British trade mission visited Baghdad with more than 50 UK companies taking part; and we held the second Joint Ministerial Trade Council between Iraq and the UK.
"Security remains a challenge but, with appropriate precautions, businesses can engage and are winning contracts."