By Anthony Shadid -- What Baghdad Has Lost

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By Anthony Shadid
Sunday, July 12, 2009

BAGHDAD

There is a hint of an older Baghdad in old Baghdad. You might call it more of a taunt. It's there at the statue of the portly poet Marouf al-Rusafi, pockmarked by bullets, who gives his name to an untamed square. Around him revolves a city, storied but shabby, that American soldiers have finally, ostensibly, left.

The past is here. A turquoise dome, fashioned from brick and adorned in arabesque, peeks from beneath a shroud of dust. A stately colonnade buttresses British-era balconies and balustrades. A forlorn call to prayer drifts from an Ottoman mosque.

But few can see the dome. A spider web of wires delivering sporadic electricity obscures the view. You can't navigate the colonnade. Blast walls block the way. And rarely does the call to prayer filter out from a deluge of car horns.

"It's all become trash, broken windows and crumbling buildings," complained Hussein Karim, a porter looking out from his perch atop a flap of cardboard on the statue's granite pedestal. "Baghdad," added his friend, Hussein Abed, "has become a shattered city."

U.S. combat troops finished withdrawing from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities on June 30. But they leave behind a capital that is forever altered by their presence. Augustus boasted that he found Rome a city of bricks and made it a city of marble. Baghdad was another city of bricks, and a coterie of American generals turned it into a city of cement. Their concrete is everywhere -- from the sprawling Green Zone to the barriers and blast walls that line almost every street -- reorienting the physical, spiritual and social geography that for more than a millennium was dictated by the lazy bends in the Tigris River.

In time, though, those walls may matter less than the deeper forces that six years of an American presence hastened. Baghdad is now a city divided from itself. Shiite neighborhoods rarely have Sunnis. Sunni ones, far less numerous today, no longer have Shiites. Christians have all but left. Potentates seek refuge in fortresses, and the poor fend for themselves.

From Beirut to Cairo to Baghdad, the Arab world's great capitals have all lost a measure of tolerance, receding behind walls, psychological and otherwise, that demarcate their sects, ethnicities and classes. Each mourns the disappearance of a cosmopolitanism that seemed entrenched a generation ago. Each longs for the inhabitants that gave it more grace. In the end, Baghdad may be the dystopic culmination of those trends, not so much shattered by the present as it is divorced from its history.

The Americans created none of it, but facilitated all of it, giving space to the region's worst impulses.

"Destruction is easy," declared Karim, the porter. "Building takes a lot more time."

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Saddam Hussein brought a coarsely martial style to an earlier Baghdad. To a utilitarian capital, his monuments brought a twisted vainglory.

The Hands of Victory is probably most distinguished in that vision, for its vulgarity alone. Conceived in 1985, the arch of crossed swords celebrated an Iraqi victory at a time when Iran was winning the eight-year war. The fists grasping the swords were molded from Hussein's, enlarged 40 times. The curved blades are replicas of the swords of Saad Ibn Abi Waqas, the Arab general who defeated the Persians in the 7th century. Each required 24 tons of metal, recast from the guns of dead Iraqi solders. From the wrists dangled nets bulging with thousands of bullet-riddled helmets of Iranian soldiers. By one account, the original plan called for Iranian skulls.


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