From an altitude of 15,000 feet, it's just a pale patch on the landscape, a soft and amorphous silhouette, exposed on every flank. It has no protective features: no city wall, no shoreline, no hill from which a fortress might rise. Its edges peter out like the threads of a frayed rug, the sandy brown of houses merging seamlessly with the green of Mesopotamia's meadows. Falluja is visible to the west, Baqubah to the northeast.
Once the fertile fields surrounding Baghdad overflowed with melons, dates and grapes - a rich bounty for the city. Nowadays they ooze death onto the capital's streets. Terrorism and insurgency have taken root in the fields and palm groves between Abu Ghraib and Baghdad International Airport in the western part of the city. Even military pilots dare not approach normally, while civilian planes remain at cruising altitude before dipping into a last-minute descent towards the runway. Only a very narrow strip of airspace is considered secure.
Iraqis arriving from Cairo, Amman or Dubai book the window seats on the left. For good reason. It's the best place to endure the hair-raising nose-dive towards terra firma: keeping your eyes glued to the horizon helps stave off the nausea. In a maneuver known as "the corkscrew," the pilot banks the plane steeply to the left. Fifteen minutes and several thousand feet later, the aircraft finally levels off and prepares to land: conversation stops as the centrifugal forces hit passengers in the stomach. The downward spiral into Baghdad seems to last an eternity.
The city has a modern airport from the 1980s, with one runway long enough for the Concorde. Iraq had lofty ambitions 25 years ago. The arrival and departure board in the Samarra terminal still shows PanAm flights to Chicago and Lufthansa services from Frankfurt; clearly it has not been used in years.
An artificial waterfall cascades from the departure hall to the arrivals area - a flashy glass complex designed when Baghdad was the most progressive city in the Arab world. The country pumped billions into the capital after it first struck oil, with substantial contributions from Old Europe: German engineers built Baghdad's freeways, the French its airport and the Scandinavians its hotels. Eastern European offers of help were turned down; first-class only, please.
Then Baghdad began its descent - and plunged faster and further than today's inbound aircraft. "We have hit rock bottom," says Yusuf Mohammed Afra (60).
Afra's last flight was in 1984. He was returning home from an exchange program for young academics in London. Back then, the West welcomed undergraduates, doctoral students, engineers and artists from Baghdad. They were considered the Middle East's crème de la crème: ambitious, well educated, self-confident and eager to expose themselves to other cultures. Afra had always played with the thought of returning to England. For a long time, it was little more than an idea. Now he has no doubt: "I would jump at the chance."
Afra and his wife own a pharmacy on the Corniche, the riverside boulevard fronting the Tigris. They live just a few hundred yards away. "It's a great blessing that we live so close to our work," he says.
In today's Baghdad, nothing is safe: life and death often hinge on how often people venture out and how far they stray at what time of day; which intersections and bridges they have to cross; which streets they negotiate, and which form of transportation they choose - private car, taxi or minivan.
Afra's daughter Adila (20) is a medical student at the University of Baghdad. When she leaves home of a morning, her father's heart sinks. He calls her on her cell phone five or six times a day to check that all is well. "I am reborn every time she returns safely at the end of the day," he says. Adila is a good student. "We can't leave Baghdad until she has finished her degree."
Until then he will continue to sell medication, almost invariably the wrong medication, because the right treatment isn't available. So a woman with rheumatism, who really needs an infusion, is sent away with a cream. And a man with a heart problem gets a generic from China past its expiration date - despite the German brand-name drug being underlined three times on his prescription.
Psychopharmaceuticals, by contrast, are in good supply. Tranquilizers and antidepressants feature on most prescriptions, even for patients with sprained joints. "A large portion of Baghdad's adult population is on tranquilizers. Valium and Lorazepam are the most common," he says. "We lie awake every night, with the same thought running through our minds: no matter how bad today was, tomorrow is sure to be worse."
Adila's university is in Jadriya across the Tigris. Twice a day she has to cross what has become a military demarcation line. Before the war it was nothing more than a river snaking across the map like elegant calligraphy, but today the Tigris is more like the Berlin Wall. It divides Baghdad into two sectors that seem to be drifting farther apart each day: Rusafa in the east, an area under the growing stranglehold of the Shiites, and Karch to the west, which is populated largely by Sunnis.
The east is dominated by the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Its stronghold is a huge, checkerboard district - built for migrants from the south following the monarchy's collapse in 1958. "Thaura," or revolution, was the first name given to the district, and long-time residents still call it that. Since 1980 it's been known as Saddam City, the name preferred by many Sunnis today. After the 2003 invasion, the district was renamed Sadr City - in honor of Moqtada's father, an influential ayatollah assassinated by Saddam.
Sadr City and the adjoining neighborhoods have been the target of repeated, devastating suicide bombings. The death toll sometimes reaches 60 or 80 a day, with the poorest being hardest hit: day laborers eking out a living at run-down markets, garbage collectors, police recruits; fathers taking their sons to the local mosque. Women are few and far between on the streets of Baghdad today.
Despite the killing, Shiites consider Sadr City one of Baghdad's safest areas. Here they are among their own. There are no rich people worth kidnapping, no ransoms to be extorted, no stores worth looting. This quarter is home to 2.5 million who live off government food handouts - rancid margarine and inferior imported rice teeming with moths that need to be sifted out.
The Mahdi militia is heavily involved in the sectarian warfare fought out in the city's religiously diverse districts. The most dangerous include Amiriya in western Baghdad, which was built by Saddam Hussein for army officers and low-ranking officials. With its small 1970s villas, stores, ice-cream parlors, schools, mosques, and lush vegetation, it was once a retreat for Iraq's middle classes.
Today Amiriya is unrecognizable. Thirty minutes after sundown the streets are pitch black. There is no electricity; just a few houses have their own generators rumbling out front. In the old days, Baghdad would burst into life at about 8 p.m. Now the rhythms of life are dictated by bombs and gunfire. Nobody dares to leave their homes. A stroll in the dark can be fatal. Every night shots ring out, people die.
After last Ramadan, black fabric banners with hand-lettered epitaphs hung along Amal-al-Schaabi Street. One mourned Bakr Mohammed, shot to death in his grocery store; another Abu Ahmed, killed on his way to his car repair shop; and a third a goldsmith, Scharif Abd al-Chalid, whose shop was blown up. Three killings in one week. One more banner pays tribute to the "martyr Dr. Amal al-Mansuri," the local pharmacist: "In the name of God, the All-Merciful. She was murdered at the hands of filthy criminals and cowards. We all come from God, we all return to God."
Six months after the American invasion, the last store to sell beer in Amiriya closed its doors. Selling alcohol is a mortal sin - as even the district's warring gangs of Shiites and Sunnis agree. Barbershops have disappeared as well, because cutting hair is considered the ultimate in secular depravity. Some barbers have tried their luck in the cell-phone market. But that, too, is a risky business. Cell phones can play music and music is "haram" - immoral and forbidden according to the militias' religious code.
A "For Sale" sign bearing a cell-phone number hangs on the front gate of every fourth or fifth house in Amiriya. In the western part of Baghdad, people are quietly segregating along religious lines. The Shiites are deserting predominantly Sunni districts like Amiriya; the Sunnis turning their backs on others. Each one of them is a casualty of the violence. "The Sunnis shoot faster," says English teacher Hussam Ali, a Shiite. "That's the only difference between them."
Red Zone, Green Zone
In May 2006, the central morgue in Baghdad registered 1,398 deaths. In 2002, the year before the war, the monthly average was 300. The number of unexplained fatalities has multiplied sevenfold. The statistics do not even include victims of suicide bombings; no autopsies are performed on them.
The inconspicuous yellow building behind Medical City in Bab al-Muadham, another of Saddam's architectural showpieces from the 1980s, has been expanded several times since 2003. Two new refrigeration units were installed, and the service area for relatives enlarged. The electrical generators chug around the clock.
Iraqi victims of Baghdad's carnage end up in Medical City, ferried there by residents, ambulances or the militias themselves. Most American casualties are flown to the 86th Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone - on the site of the former Republican Palace. The sound of helicopters is usually a bad omen. Yet more bloodshed - the victims, the dead and wounded, are on their way.
The Green Zone is in Baghdad's city center, lodged between the two spheres of influence emerging to the east and west. No other place in Baghdad is as silent, as eerie, as surreal as the four-square-mile enclave.
In the morning, before the summer heat engulfs the city, diplomats at the U.S. embassy hook up their iPods and head out for a jog. At lunchtime, employees of American companies grab a hamburger and a soft drink on the fast-food strip behind the embassy.
Next door, a supermarket sells T-shirts, shaving cream, sun screen lotion and even Iraq memorabilia: red, Coca-Cola-style baseball caps with "Enjoy Baghdad" logos, decals sporting the embassy crest, key chains with the warning displayed on the Iraqi army's vehicles: "Keep back 100 meters or be shot."
In the evening Americans gather at the cafeteria of a U.S. military supplier. Proper dress and stringent hygiene are mandatory. Sandals are not permitted. Visitors are required to wash their hands with antibacterial solution at rows of sinks in the foyer. A Pentagon employee has her own sardonic name for the Green Zone: a freak show. She is one of the few here to have left the compound - on three forays into Baghdad's Red Zone.
The numerous checkpoints in the Green Zone are manned by private security companies that employ guards from all over the world - from places like Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Fiji Islands. One of the largest contingents hails from the Republic of Georgia. The Iraqis in the Green Zone are either members of their own government, U.S. embassy employees or people who clean the offices of foreign companies. Any others hoping to get into the Green Zone need plenty of patience.
Mai Abd al-Madschid is 62. She is wearing a black abaya; a bead of sweat trickles down her forehead. She has been standing at the main gate to the Green Zone for half an hour now, and the temperature has climbed to over 100°F in the shade. But the only cover is already taken by two Georgian security staff - under the guardhouse awning. They don't understand a single syllable of the war of words that the retired teacher is waging with the sole Iraqi guard.
Abd al-Madschid's husband has been shot to death. Her efforts to explain are falling on deaf ears. As she talks, the guard turns away and douses his head with a bottle of water. He lets two or three young people pass and then looks back at her vacantly, "Yes. And then what?"
"I've already told you! My husband was shot during a police raid," she rolls out her story again. "I'm here to file a petition to the compensation panel. I'm entitled to damages." She hands him a meticulously prepared folder. "Never heard of this panel," the soldier says.
Teresa doesn't have to wait. As head receptionist at the Rashid Hotel, she has all the papers she needs. She doesn't want her last name in print; working at the Rashid has become a health hazard. High-ranking government officials and the staff of the special tribunal trying Saddam Hussein have taken rooms in the hotel. Before the war, foreign delegations and journalists stayed there. Teresa has a good memory. She recognizes her old guests at a glance.
After the war, she was subjected to a rigorous security screening. The Rashid was formerly controlled by Saddam's intelligence services; and employees like Teresa were suspected of being on their payroll. Most of them were cleared, and just about everyone rehired - albeit at a humiliating price. Teresa worked for 15 years at the Rashid. She was proud to be the face of her country's finest hotel. Now she has to wear an ID issued by an American security company. It says: "Ground-floor access only."
One of her colleagues died in February of 2005. On the way back from the funeral, Ghasi Ali Ismail, the hotel's longstanding director, was shot to death. His deputy, who had started out as a bookkeeper over 25 years before and worked his way up through the ranks, should have taken over at the helm. Unfortunately for him, he was a Sunni; the new government wanted a Shiite.
As a Chaldean, Teresa belongs to Iraq's Christian minority. She is keenly aware of the tensions mounting at the hotel. Her church has lost many of its members; Christians no longer have any say. Those who sat out the sanctions have even more reason to leave now. "I'm 52 and not expecting to find a husband anymore," Teresa laughs.
She keeps a parrot on her balcony overlooking the Tigris; it should live to a ripe old age. And her church needs someone to help at the orphanage; the children of Baghdad deserve a brighter future. "I've already lived through three wars in this city, so I'm staying put," she says.