Known for centuries as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, its landscape has been marred by concrete blast walls, barbed wire, steel barricades, sandbags and crumbling buildings pockmarked by bullet holes or ransacked by explosions.

Things have become so bad that the Iraqi capital has dropped to the bottom of a quality of life survey of 215 cities, conducted by the London-based Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

"We used to be under sanctions and the economic conditions were dire, but never was the city so ugly," Fadhila Dawud, a teacher who used to take her students on picnics along the banks of the Tigris, said.

Now they hold picnics in the school courtyard.

Glorious past

Once dubbed the City of Peace, Baghdad was founded in the 8th century by Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur as the capital for his rising Muslim Abbasid empire. The city soon became the heart of mediaeval Muslim civilisation - a centre of arts, culture and architecture. 

Areas of the city were destroyed
by US bombing in March 2003

Forming half-circles on the two sides of the Tigris, its suburbs, parks, gardens, mosques and marble mansions earned it the reputation as the richest and most beautiful city in the world.

Since then, Baghdad has survived the 13th century mayhem inflicted on it by the Mongols, the 16th-century marginalisation by the Ottomans and two decades of war and sanctions under ousted ruler Saddam Hussein.

Saddam himself did not help with beautification - most of the apartment complexes, government buildings and palaces built under his orders would not have won any architecture prizes. And then there were the dozen of statues and oversized portraits of the Iraqi leader that decorated those buildings.

City of barricades

After the US-led invasion in March 2003, the city of five million became one large military barricade: Humvees and tanks roaming the streets, helicopters rattling above, checkpoints and soldiers everywhere. 

"We used to be under sanctions and the economic conditions were dire, but never was the city so ugly"

Fadhila Dawoud,
A teacher

An armed campaign against the US-led forces compounded the scars on the city's face, undermining its ailing infrastructure and tattering the remaining grace.

Beautiful date palm groves that lined the 16km-long airport road - a visitor's first impression of Baghdad - had to be removed to prevent armed men from hiding in what has become one of the city's most dangerous battlefields.

The rampant lawlessness has also encouraged people to take over buildings previously occupied by government offices and construct squatter settlements.

Tainted walls

Even democracy has taken its toll on Baghdad. Posters and banners of candidates running in the landmark January elections - a collage of mismatched colours - are still plastered everywhere, tainting roundabouts and walls two months after the vote.

Baghdad endured 13th century
invasions and decades of war

Huge black banners of religious invocations and photos of Shia saints are randomly scattered around the city.

Ala Kadhim, a 25-year-old janitor who's lived all his life in the capital, said: "It looks so different today - the streets, the buildings, everything."

"I lived all my life here, but it's like someone has taken the feeling of 'home' away," Kadhim said, complaining about the ubiquitous blast walls.

Mayor Ala al-Tamimi has made it his mission to bring back the city's former glory.

After taking office last year, al-Tamimi relentlessly nagged coalition officials to remove the security barriers and open the numerous blocked roads, his spokesman, Amir al-Hassun, said. 

The city also has many beautification and reconstruction plans awaiting funds. But al-Hassun said the interim Iraqi government has given the city just $85 million of the $1 billion it requested - enough to begin tackling major infrastructure problems only.

City access denied

The security situation has also denied residents access to many parts of their city, including the heavily fortified Green Zone that houses US and Iraqi government offices.

Part of the city housing US and
Iraqi offices has been fenced off

A virtual fortress, the 10sq km area is encircled and crisscrossed by four-metre-high barricades. Its gates are guarded by US Bradley fighting vehicles aimed at passing traffic.

The US military said it realised the city had suffered but that the measures were necessary.

"Any soldier of Task Force Baghdad would concede the point that concrete blocks, blast walls and barbed wire are ugly security tools that detract from the beauty of any city," Lt-Col Cliff Kent, a US Army spokesman, said.

But Kadhim, the janitor, says he is hopeful Baghdad will reclaim its beauty.

"Maybe when a new government is formed and things are more stable, these walls will fall, and Baghdad would be free," he said.