April 5, 2005

My Baghdad

I spent a good part of late 1987 and 1988 in Baghdad. Although I was there for a few hours in 1991 to pick up the POWs, but haven't been back since. My other "visits" to Iraq were limited to operations in the Kurdish north and other undisclosed locations. So, my memories of Baghdad were of a different city than what is there now.

Although Iran and Iraq had been at war for over seven years by the time I arrived in Baghdad, the city really had not been touched. There were the occasional air raids and then in 1987/1988 the SCUD attacks, there was little devastation. There were also few signs of a country at war. Saddam made sure that life appeared to be normal in the city - it wasn't, but it looked that way. No seriously injured soldiers were allowed to be out and about. The major military casualty centers were far outside the city. The only indications of losses were the coffins being delivered by taxicabs with racks on top for that purpose, and the black death banners proclaiming the martyrdom of young men.

Baghdad was considered one the most beautiful cities in the region. The mosques were much prettier and ornate than those in drab Saudi Arabia or poorer Syria, for example. Say what you will about the Ba'th party and Saddam Husayn, they made the city a showplace. There were escalators up to pedestrian bridges over busy streets, the streets were modern and well-paved, the highways rivaled the autobahns, the trains ran on time (sounds like 1935 Germany...), the public monuments and parks were beautiful and well-kept.

There was real nightlife - clubs, restaurants, people out walking along the Tigris, the masquf (a special way of cooking Tigris river carp - I wouldn't recommend it) cafes in full swing, etc. It was safe to walk the streets. After the Iraqis unveiled the Husayn missile and began hitting Tehran at a rate of four outgoing for each incoming Iranian SCUD, the mood changed. After our program starting having some effect and the Iraqis recaptured the Al-Faw peninsula, the mood really improved and there was an anticipation of victory. Perhaps that is too positive. They had lost so many men that it might be more accurate to say there was an anticipation of the end of the war.

Also, consider that I was an official guest of the Iraqi government, specifically the guest of the Director of Military Intelligence. He had a bit more power (life and death) than his counterparts in the United States. I was treated extremely well, taken anywhere I wanted, and of course they wanted to show me the best side of the city.

Mostly I was impressed with the Iraqis and the Baghdadis, themselves. They aren't the same as the Saudis, Syrians, even the Jordanians. There is something about them that is different - they seem to have drive, pride, confidence. The name Baghdad derives from the Arabic "to swagger, throw your weight around, to act like a Baghdadi." (Remember the song, "Walk like an Egyptian?")

The sanctions caused a lot of decline in the infrastructure. Those who have returned recently describe the damage from the shock and awe campaign, the collapsed infrastructure, power shortages, blast walls everywhere, not to mention the danger.

I prefer to remember my Baghdad as it was. Whoever said, "You can't go back" was right.