BAGHDAD, Mar. 18 - For 280,000 U.S. and British troops poised to strike Iraq, the dusty city of Baghdad, sprawling on the banks of the river Tigris, may be no more than a target in their gunsights.
But the "city of caliphs", once capital of the Islamic world for hundreds of years, has a powerful hold over millions of Arabs and a proud history of culture and learning.
A flourishing centre of philosophy, science and literature in the ninth century AD, it reached a zenith when Europe was lost in the dark ages and nearly 1,000 years before the United States -- Iraq's 21st century foe -- was dreamt of.
Its destruction by a Mongol army in 1258 shook the Muslim world, confirming the decline of an Arab cultural and military power which in its early heyday stretched across continents.
But Iraqis believe the city still tugs at the hearts of Arabs far and wide.
"Arabs and Muslim nations look to Baghdad as a former capital of the Islamic state," said El-Hilwu Sadeq, head of Baghdad University's history department.
"It is not a simple town. In their eyes, they look to it as the heritage of their religion, of their civilisation and culture," he said. "It's a symbol for them."
"FLOWER OF CIVILISATION"
Founded in 762 AD, Baghdad enjoyed a literary boom in later decades under Haroun al-Rashid. The 1,001 Nights, which introduced the world to Aladin, Ali Baba and Sindbad the Sailor to the world, date from Haroun's era.
It is still known as the capital that produced the best poets, writers and artists in the Middle East.
"Baghdad is the flower of civilisation of the Arab and Muslim world," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in a recent interview.
Baghdad's power soon waned but it remained the seat of the Muslim caliphs (rulers) until it was sacked by Hulagu, grandson of Mongol leader Genghis Khan, in 1258 -- an act which President Saddam Hussein says the United States is trying to repeat.
"Hulagu of this age is attacking your mother, the Iraqi civilisation," Saddam said in a recent speech to the nation. "The people of Baghdad have resolved to compel the Mongols of this age to commit suicide on its walls."
Few signs of early Baghdad remain in the modern city of over five million people, where eight-lane flyovers sweep over mud- brick houses, legacies of a 1970s petro-dollar construction boom after centuries of neglect since Hulagu's devastation.
Iraq's ruinous eight-year conflict with Iran, defeat in the 1991 Gulf War and more than a decade of international sanctions wreaked destruction and put a brake on development.
But grandiose war memorials, mosques and walled-off presidential palaces still rise up above the flat skyline of the Mesopotamian plain, all the more visible because of the few high-rise buildings in the sprawling city.
Many residents have left in recent days, either seeking refuge in outlying regions or fleeing to neighbouring Syria. Others are staying put despite the danger.
"We are proud of our city. I spent most of my time abroad...but I feel sick when I'm away," said Dhafar Abdul- Kadir, head of the Baghdad Documentation Centre which compiles historical records of the capital.
"This was the centre of civilisation. In those days people came here to study, now they go to the United States," he said. "But even now, when we hear of war and attacks, we're still here".