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By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - More than six years after the U.S. invasion left Iraq's main zoo a wasteland of starving animals and deserted cages, the park in central Baghdad is enjoying a vigorous revival and needs to grow.
Few Iraqis ventured into Baghdad Zoo during the violence that surged after the 2003 invasion. But as the bombings and shootings receded, families started to return in droves -- so many, in fact, that officials are now desperate to expand the park which is home for the zoo to make space for them all.
The zoo has replaced the hundreds of animals that escaped, were stolen, died of thirst or hunger or were shot by U.S. troops and now has 1,070 animals, said the director general of parks and gardens, Salah Abu al-Lail.
"In the coming days we will receive an elephant and a giraffe. Their arrival will complete our collection of animals living in the zoo," he said.
The Al-Zawraa park containing the zoo -- once the largest in the Middle East -- now teems with families on Fridays.
A sharp fall in overall violence in Iraq over the past 18 months and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from city centres in June has restored a tentative normality to the daily lives of many Iraqis. Attacks by insurgents, including massive suicide bombings in which dozens die, remain common, however.
"When security improved, we started to live our normal lives again after a dark period of violence," said teacher Basima Abbas, visiting the zoo with her children. "We want to live normal lives like everyone else in the world."
The Zawraa Park is guarded inside by special police units assigned to government facilities. Visitors are frisked for weapons while bags and picnic baskets are checked for explosives. During holidays, all roads leading to the park are closed.
The measures have persuaded people that the park is safe.
In 2005, around 200,000 people visited the park over the three or four-day Muslim festival of Eid. But this year, 3 million Iraqis from all over the country swarmed into its 400 acres (160 hectares) during the holiday at the start of October, said Abu al-Lail.
"I expect the number of visitors to the park by the end of the year will number 8 million, from all Iraqi cities," he said. The numbers could not be verified.
Visitors to the zoo pay a small fee, equivalent to around 40 U.S. cents. The animals -- which include lions, tigers, monkeys and ostriches -- are kept in new cages and appear well-fed. A small train carries families around the park.
The surging popularity of the zoo and park have prompted park officials to ask the government to return 350 acres of land that had been swallowed up by the Green Zone, a district of government offices and embassies once controlled by U.S. forces.
That section of the park contained a theatre, a cinema and an aircraft museum, behind the Crossed Swords monument where Saddam Hussein's military forces used to parade. They should be returned to public use, said Abu al-Lail.
(Editing by Michael Christie; editing by David Stamp)