Online | Feb. 18, 2003
The difference between war in Iraq in 1991 and war in
Iraq in 2003 is that back then the talk was mostly of sand – as
in "a line in the sand" – and in 2003 it's of streets, as in
urban warfare and "taking it to the streets."
The focus now is on downtowns, city neighbourhoods,
presidential palaces, rooftops, urban warfare – the city of
It is an ancient city, one of the world's oldest. It is the
locale of much of Thousand and One Nights, the Arabian
stories of Sheherazade, Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and
Aladdin. Baghdad's population is nearly five million, more than
twice the size of Montreal, but it's more spread out. Baghdad
straddles the Tigris River, the east and west sides of the city
connected by low-level bridges. Some tall buildings still have
anti-aircraft weapons on the roof.
The Pentagon's plan for an attack on Iraq calls for 3,000
precision-guided bombs and missiles to hit Baghdad hard in the
first two days. A New York Times article on Feb. 2, 2003,
said this is intended to "stagger and isolate the Iraqi military
and quickly pave the way for a ground attack to topple a
government in shock." The article quoted Pentagon officials as
saying the initial bombardment "would use 10 times the number of
precision-guided weapons fired in the first two days of the
Persian Gulf War of 1991, and the target would be air defences,
communications facilities and suspected chemical and biological
Baghdad has hotels, restaurants, taxis, parks and bazaars, a
semblance of a transit system, but no credit cards or ATM
machines or hamburger stands. There are schools, three
universities. Alcohol is officially banned, though that hasn't
stopped the consumption of booze, including at some after-hours
dance halls. Anyone crossing the border into Iraq must take a
mandatory AIDS test.
Iraq used to have one of the best health systems in the
Middle East; now it has one of the worst. The dinar is the
standard currency (once three times the value of a U.S. dollar,
now substantially lower). Payments for hotels and taxis must be
in foreign currency. The workweek runs Sunday to Thursday.
The U.S. State Department has released information for any
Americans in Iraq, especially in big cities such as Baghdad,
- theft of money and jewelry is common in hotels rooms;
- pickpockets works the bazaars;
- travelling alone in taxis while carrying conspicuous sums
of money is not advised;
- don't visit suburbs or travel on highways alone after
- women under 45 and children must travel with an escort,
either husband, father or close male family member;
- Most doctors and hospitals demand cash in advance and
evacuation home can cost more than $50,000 US;
- Hotel rooms, phones and fax machines may be monitored;
- Cars do not use lights at night, drivers ignore traffic
signals and do not yield to pedestrians.
The City of Peace
Baghdad was founded by Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the second
Abbasid caliph, in 762. The city was established in what was
then Mesopotamia to be the Abbasids' military and administrative
|The caliph is "the
chief Muslim civil and religious ruler, regarded as the
successor of Mohammed," according to The Canadian Oxford
The original city, known as Madinat al Salam – City of Peace
– took four years to build and was founded on the western bank
of the Tigris River in an ecologically diverse area know as "the
fertile crescent." The name Baghdad comes from two Persian words
meaning "founded by God". For economic purposes, the city site
was in an advantageous position on the routes connecting Iran,
Iraq and Syria.
The city was constructed within a series of three concentric
walls built around an administrative centre. The circles
symbolized order in chaos, and roadways radiated outward to the
north, south, east and west. All roads led to the Caliph's
palace at the hub.
The construction of the city spawned the growth of other
communities, as military and construction camps arose nearby. To
the north was the military camp, al-Harbiya. To the south, al
Karkh, home to thousands of construction workers, who
established factories and services to provide for the growing
population. Baghdad's famous bazaars, which remain beehives of
activity, sprouted in the crowded alleys of al Karkh.
The administrative centre was completed in 766 and soon after
additional administrative quarters and palaces were built.
Baghdad rapidly expanded across the east bank of the Tigris
River, the location of the present city centre.
By the ninth century, Baghdad had evolved into a fast-growing
metropolis, roughly the size of present-day Halifax, with a
population of between 300,000 and 500,000. For a time, it was
the largest city in the Middle East before being overtaken by
Constantinople in the 16th century. Baghdad was one of the
largest, most cosmopolitan cities in the world, home to Muslims,
Christians, Jews and pagans from across the Middle East and
In his book A History of Islamic Societies, Historian
Ira M. Lapidus said this varied complexion made Baghdad
revolutionary for its time. Under the caliphate the city was
home to a new, multi-faceted, culturally integrated Middle East
ruled by the Abbasids and subject to Islamic beliefs."
|'Baghdad provided the
wealth and manpower to govern a vast empire; it
crystallized the culture which became the Islamic
The Abbasids rejected the caste system in favour of universal
equality for all Muslims, and allowed people of different walks
to participate in administrative roles.
The fall of the Abbasids, a city in decline
Baghdad was, for a time, the de-facto capital of the Middle
East. From Baghdad, the Abbasid central government ruled over
Iraq, western Iran, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq
and Khuzistan (present-day Iran). The 600-year Abbasid reign in
Baghdad came to an end in 1258 when the city was sacked and
burned by Mongols led by Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan.
The last Abbasid caliph was killed in the attacks, and much of
Baghdad's infrastructure was destroyed, plunging the city into a
centuries-long tailspin of disrepair.
In the centuries following, Baghdad became caught in a
500-year-long struggle between the Turks and Persians. The Turks
held the city for three centuries leading up to the British
capture in 1917. Four years later, Baghdad was named capital of
the newly created kingdom of Iraq.
An oil boom in the 1970s lifted the city's fortunes. Money
flowed into Baghdad, paying for new sewage and water lines, as
well as a broad network of highways. By 1980, however, these
improvements were crippled by Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.
What remained of the developing infrastructure was all but
crushed by massive U.S. bombing raids during the 1991 Gulf War.