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Before military and economic damage, Baghdad was a mighty, modern capital

After weeks of U.S.-led bombings, Iraqi-lit oil trenches and a decade of economic embargo decay, it may be hard to see Baghdad as the once-mighty, modern Arab capital that Saddam Hussein built.

U.S. troops now on the city's edge are likely to obliterate much of what is left of Baghdad's glory before they get to see it.

But Saddam presided over the creation of a sprawling, cosmopolitan 2,000-square-mile metropolis, which thanks to Iraq's 20th-century oil wealth, fused an austere Socialist-style Baath Party ideology with the fabled history that was the setting for the tales of "A Thousand and One Nights."

Today, U.S. troops now squat at one end in a once-gleaming airport that was a model for the Middle East. On the other end, more than 1 million Shiites live in a slum called Saddam City—all linked, more or less, by a freeway system that once reminded American visitors of Los Angeles.

Baghdad is sliced in two by a river that runs through the Bible—the Tigris. And, especially between wars, affluent residents would spend their evenings in open-air restaurants along the river, dining on an outdoor slow-cooked fish feast called masgoof.

It has broad boulevards built wide enough for an armored tank column and an old souq, or bazaar, which by day clamored with a cacophony of brass workers a few alleys away from the Persian carpet merchants.

In all, an estimated 6.7 million people live in metropolitan Baghdad, a city of apartment blocks and suburbs, university campuses and slums, complete with posh high-rise hotels, parks and what are coyly called palaces—the secret, now mostly smashed, compounds that for decades did the secret work of Saddam Hussein.

More publicly, especially before 1990 U.N. sanctions, Baghdad pumped a share of its oil wealth into massive building projects, as though Baghdad were Texas and Saddam was the sheriff. Teams of architects designed huge monuments—many to war, but invariably also mentioning Saddam—drawing on the eras when Iraq was called Mesopotamia and the celebrated king was Nebuchadnezzer.

Founded in the 8th century, Baghdad started as a round city with double brick walls and emerged as a center of commerce and culture, poetry and scholarship by the time Mongols sacked it five centuries later.

Renowned across the Arab world, and embodied in the tales of Arabian Nights, it was a city celebrated for centuries as a center of literary discussions, where the poet, Abu Nawas, wrote sultry paeans to wine and women.

Sometime after he emerged as strongman in 1979—mostly by systematically killing off rivals from a 1958 military coup against ruling Iraqi royalty—Saddam began to see the city as a reflection of Baath Party destiny. The party's doctrine, a homegrown Arab form of socialism, ended royal power.

Baghdad's crowds, according to accounts, cheered as the members of the royal family were dragged through the city's dusty narrow streets.

Yet royalty is still part of Baghdad's history. As recently as the mid 1990s, visitors could find royal graves in a cemetery in a working-class section of the city.

For years, under sanctions, Baghdad residents have lived on on-again, off-again rations. But the city also has offered American-style fast food for those who can afford it, high-tech computer links for those the regime trusted and, for years, some of the most esteemed artists, architects and archaeologists of the Arab world.

It also had Saddam City, mile after mile of dusty, sandy slums where at least 1.5 million Shiite Iraqis live, long the underclass in this Sunni-dominated nation. In a startling juxtaposition to the modern image, Shiite women veil themselves from head to toe in traditional black.

In other parts of Baghdad, the atmosphere is secular, defying traditional Muslim taboos with a beer brewery, cafes and coed cinemas in the city center. Enforcing the liberality is an iron-fisted secret police network that for years has permitted barely a Muslim fundamentalist peep.

But Baghdad does not hide its Islamic roots and under Saddam's building schemes has some of the largest—and most beautiful—mosques in the Middle East.

Its universities also were among the best of the Arab world, specializing in arts, sciences, as well as a medical school where men and women became doctors, side by side.

Clothing has for years reflected a curious blend of East and West. Some men walk the street in Bedouin-style robes, scarves draped around their heads. Others wear trousers and button-down shirts, and favor black leather jackets. Female attire ranges from the traditional black abaya that covers any curves to younger hemlines and, sometimes, trousers.

Women, in fact, reflect the city's modern diversity. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war they made great social gains, Rosie-the-Riveter fashion. And while poor Shiite women often stayed at home, by the 1990s more affluent women could be seen along Saadoun Street, not far from the old U.S. Embassy, wearing European fashions and driving gas-guzzling cars.

Baghdad also is home to an entire generation that has grown up to become soldiers and has lived from war to war—starting with the 1980s bloodletting between Iran and Iraq, eight years of tank and rocket battles that were armed during the Cold War.

That war ended in 1988, leaving 1 million dead and wounded on both sides. In August 1990, Saddam sent troops to invade Kuwait, sparking the first U.S.-led Gulf War five months later. U.N. sanctions and isolation left Baghdad, the Baath Party and Iraq reeling into the future.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):