Baghdad Striving to Recover Glory of Its Past Residents Optimistic Despite War, Sanctions
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page A25
BAGHDAD, Iraq-The day he saw this city's graceful 14th of July Bridge lying in the Tigris River, a casualty of American missiles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, poet Abdul Razak Abdul Wahid was reminded of a wounded bird, its wings broken and struggling.
"I thought of all the lovers who met on that bridge," said Wahid, who incorporated his thoughts into a poem to commemorate the bridge's subsequent reopening. "I have seen old people weep on that bridge, and all I could think was, what was the benefit of destroying it?"
Like the bird in Wahid's poem, Baghdad is struggling again to take flight. Built by the Muslim caliph al-Mansur in the 8th century, the legendary Iraqi capital, once a center of world culture and trade, has suffered in the last two decades through disastrous wars with Iran and the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, followed by eight years of crippling international trade sanctions. Residents, or at least those who remain optimists, refer to the city's past glory and say they expect to recapture it someday.
"There was war and then sanctions, and everything is frozen now," said Khader Duleimi, publisher and editor of the government-owned Baghdad Observer, an English-language newspaper. "We are trying to come to terms with this situation. We know that it is something artificial. It is not a reality. Once we have the embargo lifted, Baghdad will recover."
As it is, the eight-year-old trade embargo, and the ever-present threat of renewed military action over U.N. weapons inspections, have rendered Baghdad a study less in grandeur than in ambiguity. It is a place where gloomy economic circumstances coexist with a lively local stock market, new cafes and coffeehouses; where a focused effort to restore war-damaged infrastructure is occurring alongside indulgent investments in new palaces and public art; where a people accustomed to free health care, education and other benefits of oil wealth have adjusted to a time when wages have been devalued to almost nothing and it is sometimes impossible to find an aspirin in a store.
The bombing of Baghdad was among the more controversial aspects of the Persian Gulf War, mixing military targets -- such as the Defense Ministry and communications towers -- with those of less obvious strategic value, such as the local convention center and the city's power grid.
Today, there is little evidence of the damage. Collapsed bridges have been rebuilt, the streets have been repaired, and the water and electricity systems have been patched together well enough for the city to function. Major government facilities have been reconstructed.
"Baghdad within two years had been rebuilt, after a pounding" during the U.S.-led air campaign, said Philippe Heffinck, head of the UNICEF mission in Iraq. "It was important to show that this city had the power to rehabilitate. . . . They did it brilliantly."
Some may question the government's priorities, however. While begging children are inescapable, and middle-class Iraqis have been reduced to shining shoes and other jobs that were once the province of 2 million guest workers from Egypt and elsewhere, construction is underway on the latest of several massive palaces built in the capital since the war. Heavy equipment is also leveling land for the Saddam Mosque, advertised as the Islamic world's largest house of worship. In the spot where a concrete communications building was destroyed during the war, the Saddam Tower now dominates the Baghdad skyline, complete with a posh revolving restaurant on top and a park with children's rides at the base.
"It's 203 meters" (670 feet high), an attendant said proudly as he escorted visitors around the grounds, pointing out the tiny sculptured heads of former president George Bush and other Gulf War coalition leaders scattered on the shoes of a 20-foot-tall statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The tower is emblematic of Baghdad today.
At the top, the restaurant spins at a leisurely pace, the tables crisply set, the friendly staff standing at attention. But, in the middle of a recent Friday night, only one table was occupied.
From the observation deck, the city's main monuments -- the vaulted, oval Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the nearby Victory Sword, composed of four large blades slicing the sky and resting atop helmets taken from dead Iranian soldiers -- are well lit and obvious. So are the large swaths of darkness in neighborhoods afflicted with power outages.
At the tower's base, the children's rides are a swirl of festive color. The park itself is deserted.
Perhaps a better symbol of contemporary Baghdad than Wahid's struggling bird is a cracked windshield. Despite the economic embargo, the city's cars and trucks and buses keep running, patched together with ingenuity and the few spare parts that people can find and afford. But few vehicles are without broken glass, dented bodies, smoking exhaust pipes or other problems too expensive to fix.
The city survives in much the same way. No one knows that better than Raad Gazi, director of the Doura power station, one of three large oil-fired plants that supply Baghdad's electricity.
The war was a disaster for the city's power supply. As at the other stations, the Doura plant was blanketed with filaments, spewed from special U.S. missiles, that shorted out transformers and left Baghdad in darkness. The station's main building and one of its emissions stacks also were hit directly, he said.
Within a few months the plant was repaired sufficiently to begin generating electricity again, he said, but it has never been able to run at more than half of its 640-megawatt capacity. Even sustaining that is a challenge, given the lack of spare parts. Rather than replace faulty boiler tubes, for example, workers patch holes with welds, knowing they will likely have to repeat the process in a month or two.
"It's too much," Gazi said. "You get crazy sometimes."
To make do with diminished capacity, Gazi said, he and other electricity managers in Baghdad rotate blackouts around the city, taking neighborhoods and businesses off-line for anywhere from three to six hours daily, and sometimes longer.
In some respects, life in Baghdad is defined by the daily struggle between the abnormality imposed by sanctions and the urge to live as if they did not exist.
Drinking the tap water, for example, is a dubious proposition. Years of inadequate maintenance have left the city's water system, once state of the art, riddled with leaks, U.N. officials say. Because of the power outages, and the subsequent loss of pressure, sewage can contaminate the drinking water supply -- a phenomenon reflected in the high rates of typhoid and gastrointestinal disease in the city.
"Before, we lived well," said Nahiday Nahamy, director of the Museum of Challenge, a collection of before-and-after scale models of buildings destroyed during the war and subsequently rebuilt. "We'd go on picnics and visit friends. Now it's different. Picnics are very expensive."
Nahamy said she recently sold her car because it was too expensive to repair. She is frustrated with the daily electricity outages and worries about whether the water from her faucet will make her sick.
All the same, she said, "Baghdad still exists."
"I saw my country devastated completely," she added. "We are very strong now. And I don't speak just for myself. We continue to live."
Even today, Baghdad is not without bright spots, from the entrepreneur who recently opened a cappuccino bar and video rental store -- Jackie Chan's "Rush Hour" is his hit -- to the recent celebration of Baghdad's founding with fireworks and actors recounting the city's glory days.
At 22, Zyad Kadimi is among the city's boosters, though he is well aware of its shortcomings. Helping at his family's carpet shop, and also working toward a college degree in business, he longs for the day when cell phones, the Internet and the rest of the communications revolution arrive in Baghdad, where even the local phone service can be spotty.
"Life is not easy for our age, so we have to learn how to work," Kadimi said. "We stopped in 1990, and if we can open it, we can put things right. . . . We are not less than anybody in the world. . . . We can be like London and Europe."
(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company