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By Anthony Shadid -- What Baghdad Has Lost

The walls of today are more functional, but no less distinguishing. They are without the aggressive permanence of the barriers the Israelis have built to divide themselves from the Palestinians. They lack the political graffiti and inspired art that made the Berlin Wall so distinctive. Instead they articulate the disparate ambitions in an Iraq that is emerging from war, even as many wonder what it has left.

Paintings on the cement boast an idealized Iraq of Sumerian and Babylonian glory or a future of improbable skyscrapers. Vendors use them as billboards -- for real estate, children's clothes and changing money. The government scrawls on them its authoritarian vision of law as an antidote to entrenched disorder. "Respect and be respected," one motto reads. "Be a hero. Protect Iraq," urges another.

"These walls will be removed when the people of Iraq finally wake up again," said Wissam Karim, a 28-year-old soldier walking to his base in Adhamiyah.

He glanced at a wall that stretched nearly two miles, dividing the Sunni residents of Adhamiyah from the Shiite residents of Sleikh. "Long live the resistance," read a slogan scrawled on one segment. Someone had crossed out the last word and written "Iraq."

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Khan Mirjan was built in 1359, and an inscription on a wall of the caravanserai glorifies its founder, Amin al-Din Mirjan: "The most abundantly just, king of kings of the world." For 600 years, the building endured as a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.

In the months after the invasion, it was looted. A rising water table soon flooded it. Majestic but musty, the khan feels like the Colosseum might have to a medieval Roman.

"It endured for hundreds of years," said Hassan Ibrahim, a 41-year-old squatter or watchman (take your pick). "If you want to destroy it, it takes no more than minutes."

Unlike in Cairo or Istanbul, with their imperial cityscapes, remarkably little of Baghdad's antiquity has survived. Wars, the flooding of the temperamental Tigris and occasional lightning made sure of that. The city instead seems to draw pride from a culture of memory.

"When did we lose that civilized spirit?" asked Saad Owaiz, a 58-year-old denizen of the Zihawi Cafe, with a cigarette-stained goatee and Lenin-style glasses.

He longed for a past as imagined as it was real. He mourned Rashid Street and its long-shuttered restaurants and cinemas. He missed the chatter among officials, sheikhs and men of letters at the Parliament Cafe.

"There's not as much conversation these days," he lamented.

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The neighborhood that unfurls from Rusafi's statue was once Baghdad's most vibrant, with a mix of Ottoman mosques and markets and British-era apartments. There was fashion on River Street, culture on colonnaded Rashid Street, the first to be illuminated in Iraq. The tastiest pastries, the best coffee and the most delicious ice cream could be found there. Protests got their bearings at the square, then surged forward.


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