As recently as the 1970s, Baghdad was lauded as a model city in the Arab world. But now, after decades of seemingly endless conflict, it is the world’s worst city.
That is, at least, according to the latest survey by the Mercer consulting group, which when assessing quality of life across 239 cities, measuring factors including political stability, crime and pollution, placed Baghdad last.
The Iraqi capital was lumped with Bangui in the conflict-hit Central African Republic and the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the latest confirmation of the 1,250-year-old city’s fall from grace as a global intellectual, economic and political centre.
Residents of Baghdad contend with near-daily attacks, a lack of electricity and clean water, poor sewerage and drainage systems, rampant corruption, regular gridlock, high unemployment and a myriad other problems.
“We live in a military barracks,” complained Hamid al-Daraji, a paper salesman, referring to the ubiquitous checkpoints, concrete blast walls and security forces peppered throughout the city.
“The rich and the poor share the same suffering,” the 48-year-old continued. “The rich might be subjected at any moment to an explosion, a kidnapping, or a killing, just like the poor.
“Our lives are ones where we face death at any moment.”
It was not always so for the Iraqi capital.
Construction of the city on the Tigris River first began in 762 AD during the rule of Abbasid caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur, and it has played a pivotal role in Arab and Islamic society ever since.
In the 20th century, Baghdad was held up as a gleaming example of a modern Arab city with some of the region’s best universities and museums, a highly-educated elite, a vibrant cultural scene and top-notch healthcare.
Officials still note how their counterparts from the region would hold up Baghdad’s international airport as a model, and oil cartel OPEC was founded in the Iraqi capital.
And it was home to a diverse population of Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.
“Baghdad represented the economic centre of the Abbasid state,” noted Issam al-Faili, a professor of political history at the city’s Mustansiriyah University, an institution which traces its own history back nearly 800 years.
“It was used as a base for taking control of neighbouring areas in order to strengthen Islamic influence.”
“It used to be a capital of the world,” Faili said, “but today, it has become one of the world’s most miserable cities.”
In February alone, 57 violent incidents struck the Iraqi capital, including 31 car bombs.
As recently as March 5, a dozen shootings and bombings across the city killed 20 people. The very next day, four more bombings left 11 dead.
Security forces typically respond with heavy-handed tactics reliant on setting up new checkpoints to add to the plethora already scattered around Baghdad, and restricting movement as much as possible.
Massive concrete walls, designed to withstand the impact of explosions, still divide up confessionally-mixed neighbourhoods, while the government sits in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, which is also home to parliament and the US and British embassies, access to which is difficult for ordinary Iraqis.
– Uphill task –
Some are working to clean up the city and beautify it, but even they acknowledge the uphill task facing them.
“I am actually hurt that Baghdad ranked among the worst cities in the world,” said Amir al-Chalabi, head of the Humanitarian Construction Organisation, an NGO which runs civic campaigns aimed at improving the city’s services.
“Successive governments have not worked to develop Baghdad,” he said.
“It has become deserted, and it suffers from instability. At night, it turns into a ghost town because of the lack of lighting.”
Messes of electrical wires run along neighbourhood streets, as privately-operated communal generators work to make up for the shortfall in provision from the national grid, albeit at a price.
Poor drainage means that even moderate levels of rainfall during the winter lead to flooding, as pools form on the city’s potholed streets, while scorching summer heat forces the government to regularly declare national holidays.
Economic growth nationwide is strong, thanks to healthy oil production, but because the industry is not labour-intensive, it has not made a major dent in unemployment, including in the capital.
“Baghdad’s problems cannot be counted,” said Daraji, the paper seller.
“The situation in Baghdad is sad. Sometimes it makes us cry — beautiful Baghdad is today in ruins.”