By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad
Published: 04 May 2007
"Be careful," warned a senior Iraqi government official living in the Green Zone in Baghdad, "be very careful and above all do not trust the police or the army."
He added that the level of insecurity in the Iraqi capital is as bad now as it was before the US drive to make the city safe came into operation in February.
The so-called "surge", the dispatch of 20,000 extra American troops to Iraq with the prime mission of getting control of Baghdad, is visibly failing.
There are army and police checkpoints everywhere but Iraqis are terrified because they do not know if the men in uniform they see there are, in reality, death squad members.
Omar, the 15-year-old brother-in-law of a friend, was driving with two other boys through al-Mansur in west Baghdad a fortnight ago. Their car was stopped at a police checkpoint. Most of the police in Baghdad are Shia. They took him away saying they suspected that his ID card was a fake. The real reason was probably that only Sunnis use the name Omar. Three days later he was found dead.
I was driving through central Baghdad yesterday. Our car was pulled over at an army checkpoint. I had hung my jacket from a hook above the window so nobody could easily see I was a foreigner. A soldier leaned in the window and asked who I was. We were lucky. He merely looked surprised when told I was a foreign journalist and said softly: "Keep well hidden."
The problem about the US security plan is that it does not provide security. It had some impact to begin with and the number of bodies found in the street went down. This was mainly because the Shia Mehdi Army was stood down by its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr.
But the Sunni insurgent groups increased the number of sectarian suicide bombings against Shia markets. The US was unable to stop this and now the sectarian body count is on the rise again. Some 30 bodies, each shot in the head, were found on Wednesday alone.
The main new American tactic is proving counter-productive. This is the sealing-off of entire neighbourhoods, either by concrete walls or barriers of rubbish, so there is only a single entrance and exit.
Speaking of Sunni districts such as al-Adhamiyah, a government official said: "We are creating mini-Islamic republics."
This is born out by anecdotal evidence. The uncle of a friend called Mohammed (nobody wants their full name published) died of natural causes. The family, all Sunni, wanted to bury him but were unable to reach the nearest cemetery in Abu Ghraib. Instead they went to one in Adhamiyah. As they entered the cemetery an armed civilian group, whom they took to be al-Qa'ida from their way of speaking, asked directly: "Are any of you Shia?" Only when reassured that they were all Sunni were they allowed to bury their relative.
The failure of the "surge" comes because it is not accompanied by any political reconciliation. On the contrary the government is factionalised. The two vice-presidents, Tariq al- Hashimi, a Sunni, and Adel Abdel Mehdi, a Shia, may make conciliatory statements, but one Iraqi observer noted: "Tariq only employs Sunni and Adel only Shia."
The Sunni feel they are fighting for their lives. Their last redoubts in east Baghdad (aside from Adhamiyah) are being overrun by the Mehdi Army. The Sunni insurgent groups, notably al-Qa'ida, are on the offensive in west Baghdad, where they are strongest. When the Americans succeed in driving away Shia militia their place is taken, not by government forces, but by Sunni militia.
People in Baghdad are terrified of being killed by a bomb or bundled into the boot of a car and murdered. Less dramatic, but equally significant in forcing people to flee Iraq for Jordan or Syria is the sheer difficulty of maintaining a normal life. Much of the trade in the city used to take place in open-air markets. But because of repeated bombs attacks only one is now open. This is in Karada, but many people no longer go there because it has come under repeated attack.
So many areas are now sealed off in Baghdad that there are continuous traffic jams. This presents a problem for drivers. If they to avoid the traffic jams by driving off the main road they may enter an area where militiamen rule whomay kill them.
One friend who had just returned from a trip to Syria found that, because of an attack on a government patrol, his neighbourhood had been closed to traffic. "I had to walk for 40 minutes with my heavy suitcase," he lamented.
Even in dangerous neighbourhoods such as Beitawin, off Saadoun Street in central Baghdad, notorious for its criminal gangs even in Saddam Hussein's time, people were queuing for petrol for hours yesterday evening because they have no choiceif they want to fill their tanks.
A bizarre flavour has been given to Saadoun Street because the government has encouraged artists to paint the giant concrete blast barriers with uplifting, if unlikely, scenes of mountain torrents, meadows in spring and lakeside scenes. Many of the pictures, all in garish greens, blues and yellows, look more like Switzerland than Iraq.
Muqtada al-Sadr, for his part, is encouraging artists to paint the blast barriers with scenes illustrating the anguish that has been inflicted on the Iraqi people by the US occupation.
The only "gated community" that functions successfully in Baghdad is the Green Zone itself, the four square miles on the right bank of the Tigris that is home to the government and the US embassy. It is sealed off from the rest of Iraq by multiple security barriers and fortifications.
Entering the zone recently I was questioned and searched, at different stages, by Kurds, Georgians, Peruvians and Nepalese.
No country in the world has such rigorous frontier procedures as what one American called "this little chunk of Texas". Living cut off in the zone it is impossible for the ruling elite of Iraq to understand the terrible suffering and terror beyond the compound's gates.