Baghdad was built in the 8th century by Abbasid caliphs, who moved the capital of the Arab empire from Damascus. Located in the middle of ancient Mesopotamia, on the banks of the Tigris, the city ruled over central Asia, Arabia, North Africa, and today's Spain. The Baghdad caliphs welcomed merchants, scholars and artisans from all over the Muslim world and for a long time Baghdad had non-Arab majority. Baghdad's wealth and sophistication reached its apex in the 9th century, under caliph Harun Al-Rashid. This was Baghdad of One Thousand Nights.
A sack by Mongols in the 13th century brought an end to the Baghdad caliphate, yet the city rose from defeat and remained for centuries a vibrant, multiethnic metropolis. Before Saddam, the city was home to a large Jewish and Christian population, as well Kurdish, Turkoman, and Persian minorities. Later, most Jews and Christians left, but the city maintained some of its cosmopolitan and secular character.
VOA correspondent Emad Ashour spent most of his life in Baghdad and is now embedded with U.S. troops. He remembers a beautiful city of sprawling date palm groves, mosques and monuments, which was made fearful and dark by a brutal regime. "It's a very nice city," he says. "I enjoyed living there. If this city was under the control of a good government that could let you enjoy this kind of life, yes, this city could offer you everything you imagine. A big river dividing the city into two lovely parts. You can enjoy living there, having fun there, yes this is One Thousand Nights."
Mr. Ashour has a lot of friends in Baghdad, and hopes to see them soon, but he is afraid Saddam Hussein will try to draw the coalition into a nasty urban fight.
"I think Saddam is waiting to have a battle inside Baghdad, and to hide behind civilians, or to use civilians as human shields. I hope that we don't do that."
Analysts agree that a large number of victims among Baghdad civilians and substantial destruction of the city would cause resentment among residents and complicate reconstruction after the war. Like the rest of Iraq, Baghdad has a mixture of Sunni, Shiah and Kurdish population, and very sharp economic divisions. Apart from rich, mainly Sunni residential districts, it is the site of an overcrowded, predominantly Shiah slum neighborhood known as "Saddam City".
Kevin Whitelaw, a journalist writing for the U.S. News and World Report weekly visited Saddam City in the year 2000.
"I stepped out in the street and I was immediately swarmed by the crowd," he says. "And it wasn't in that case an incredibly hostile crowd, but I was in much friendlier crowds everywhere else I went in Iraq. I did not feel threatened, but at the same time I could see how it could have turned into that."
The impoverished Shiah from Saddam City, says Whitelaw, are resentful of the regime, but often direct their anger against Westerners who stray into their neighborhoods. Still, if Americans arrive with food and other help, they may receive a much warmer welcome. Kevin Whitelaw believes that despite decades of political intimidation, it wouldn't be easy to compel various groups of Baghdadis to defend the regime. That does not mean, however, that all of them would freely cooperate with occupying forces.
Professor Amatzia Baram of the University of Haifa, who has written about the history and social structure of Baghdad, believes the Shiah and Kurds will accept Americans, although without much enthusiasm.
"They will accept Americans like 'O.K., it's a good thing you came,'" he says. "I don't think they will throw flowers or candies on the tanks. But they will accept the Americans and they will be ready to talk to them about arrangements, about what's going on, about how to rebuild the infrastructure, how do we manage the city, and so on."
There is, however, a numerous group of privileged Sunnis -- party apparatchiks, informers, security agents, people close to Saddam's regime -- who may fear not only for their positions but also for their lives. Professor Baram believes they may keep resisting the coalition even after the fall of Saddam.
"I can easily see that some civilians will fight against the Americans with rifles, with Kalashnikov's. I can see that happen," the professor says. "I can see that in the Sunni areas of the city, in the affluent, well-to-do parts of the town, small groups of guerrillas, or terrorists, will be trying to find a place to stay and to attack Americans from the back."
Establishing basic order in the city after the war will be the first, daunting task of coalition forces. Rebuilding and managing the capital on a daily basis requires cooperation from Baghdadis. Kevin Whitelaw believes help may come from Baghdad's professional classes and low-level bureaucracy, who are mostly well educated and competent.
"You have a very capable bureaucracy that at the lower level is not particularly politicized," he says. "So this will be, I think, an incredibly important component in rebuilding this country, if the United States and the coalition are able to take advantage of these resources."
The Baghdad educated class, says Kevin Whitelaw, are thoroughly Westernized, both in their outlook and in their lifestyles, and resent the growing Islamization of life in the city visible in recent years.
"You have people who remember the days, which really weren't so long ago, only six or seven years ago, when there were bars and nightclubs, and many of them miss those days very much," Mr. Whitelaw says. Right now, however, hardly anybody thinks about nightclubs, bars, or cafes. According to reports the city is engulfed in smoke from oil pits set on fire to obstruct the visibility of coalition planes. Baghdad is heavily patrolled by soldiers and Mukhabarat, or internal security agents.
Many Baghdadi are leaving for the countryside, while peasants sneak in to sell their produce at makeshift markets. Those who remain appear tired and resigned. How will they react when coalition troops move closer and order in the city starts to break up? Will Saddam's agents try to provoke chaos and create a humanitarian crisis?
Despite those questions, Emad Ashour cannot wait to see his native city, which he left in the aftermath of the first Gulf War 12 years ago. He believes that behind Baghdad's multiethnic facade, behind mutual suspicion and antagonisms, there lingers the old thread of patriotism and loyalty that has been holding the capital together. "We are Iraqis. This is the main thing they say. They do not ask which religion you belong to, what sect, or what tribe," he says. "The only thing they ask is 'Are you Iraqi, do you love your country or your city.' That's it. That's what it was before, and, I believe, that's how it can easily be again."
Perhaps Baghdad can be reborn not only as a "nice city to live," but also as a great Arab center open to the world and to the future. But for Emad Ashour and many other hopeful Iraqis, the road to this new Baghdad can be long and full of peril.