The violence had begun to ebb by 2016 but corroded car bomb hulks, and abandoned, bombed out and bullet-riddled buildings represented the horrors Baghdad, the city of about seven million, had suffered
Iraq hardly looked like a country in the middle of an existential war as we drove from Najaf, the port of our entry, to Karbala, 75km away, in February 2016 as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS. There were barely any visible signs of the war against the terrorist organisation masquerading as a caliphate—the so-called Islamic State aka ISIS.
Much of Central Iraq appeared normal at least on the face of it. The region’s main attractions—mausoleums of the Prophet’s relatives—markets and hotels around them were full of pilgrims from across the world. They regularly reverberated with salutations upon the Prophet and his family as pallbearers would bring bodies of fallen anti-ISIS fighters for funeral services and provide grim reminders of the bloody war.
Banners celebrating fallen fighters virtually on every lamppost and TV screen in public squares beaming visuals of successes from the frontlines were among other outliers. They constantly reminded people in the region, where the bulk of the volunteer fighters were signing up to fight ISIS, about the conflict in the country’s north.
It was not until we travelled to Baghdad, the national capital around 180 km north of Najaf, that Iraq began appearing increasingly war-torn. Boots on the ground and armoured vehicles became ubiquitous as we approached the city after driving kilometres and kilometres without any traffic on the well-maintained expressway.
The expressway meandered through sparsely-populated deserts, dotted with eulogies to the Prophet, his family, and the fallen anti-ISIS fighters, with hardly any human habitation over swathes of territory.
A sense of uneasy calm en route to the city gave way to palpable tension as we entered Baghdad. The city was under a state of siege. More and more checkpoints to thwart terrorist attacks began blocking the traffic as we got closer to the city centre.
Once known for idyllic palm gardens, the conflict had turned Baghdad into a city of barricades and traffic jams. Until at least 2018, 800 roads and over 80 percent of the city’s avenues were closed; 281 checkpoints choked its traffic.
As many as 73,000 segments of 15-foot-high concrete blast walls across Baghdad accounted for over half of the city’s total walls. The blast walls made the city an urban maze. They protected but also parted Iraqis from one another. Residents told us that many of them had not seen some of the buildings and streets hidden behind the walls for years.
The violence had begun to ebb by 2016. But corroded car bomb hulks, abandoned, bombed out and bullet-riddled buildings represented the horrors the city of about seven million had suffered. The checkpoints and other restrictions appeared hardly a matter of concern for anyone as long as they prevented more bloodshed.
As the guests of the most influential shrines in the region, our SUVs were not stopped for checking. It was much later we learnt a motorcycle-borne policeman chased another vehicle carrying other members of our delegation for clicking pictures of one of executed former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussain’s palaces.
We too clicked pictures of the palace without any problem. The policemen overtook the other vehicle, stopped it, and allowed it to proceed further only after ensuring the pictures were deleted for security reasons.
The palace was a major attraction for visitors and emblematic of Iraq’s fall. For centuries, Iraq was primarily known as the cradle of civilisation, where mathematics, astronomy, and medicine thrived under the patronage of great empires with pivotal contributions to architecture, art, and science.
Baghdad once represented the cultural peak of the Muslim world. It was the global intellectual and cultural capital known for refinement and home to the brightest minds, who contributed to the Islamic Golden Age. In 2016, Iraq was a far cry from its glorious past and conjured up images of ISIS, violence, dictatorship, and tyranny.
Saddam’s decades-long dictatorship was among the reasons for the reversal of Iraq’s fortunes. The country began making global headlines for all the wrong reasons during his reign overshadowing Iraq’s place in history as a region that birthed some of the earliest civilisations and a prominent global centre for learning for centuries.