Baghdad is paralysed by fear. Iraqi drivers are terrified of running into impromptu checkpoints where heavily armed men in civilian clothes may drag them out of their cars and kill them for being the wrong religion. Some districts exchange mortar fire every night. This is mayhem beyond the comprehension of George Bush and Tony Blair.
Black smoke was rising over the city centre yesterday as American and Iraqi army troops tried to fight their way into the insurgent district of Haifa Street only a mile north of the Green Zone, home to the government and the US and British embassies. Helicopters flew fast and low past tower blocks, hunting snipers, and armored vehicles maneuvered in the streets below.
Many Iraqis who watched the State of the Union address shrugged it off as an irrelevance. “An extra 16,000 US soldiers are not going to be enough to restore order to Baghdad,” said Ismail, a Sunni who fled his house in the west of the city, fearing he would be arrested and tortured by the much-feared Shia police commandos.
It is extraordinary that, almost four years after US forces captured Baghdad, they control so little of it. The outlook for Mr Bush’s strategy of driving out insurgents from strongholds and preventing them coming back does not look good.
On Monday, a helicopter belonging to the US security company Blackwater was shot down as it flew over the Sunni neighbourhood of al-Fadhil, close to the central markets of Baghdad. Some of the five American crew members may have survived the crash but they were later found with gunshot wounds to their heads, as if they had been executed on the ground.
Baghdad has broken up into hostile townships, Sunni and Shia, where strangers are treated with suspicion and shot if they cannot explain what they are doing. In the militant Sunni district of al-Amariyah in west Baghdad the Shia have been driven out and a resurgent Baath party has taken over. One slogan in red paint on a wall reads: “Saddam Hussein will live for ever, the symbol of the Arab nation.” Another says: “Death to Muqtada [Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric] and his army of fools.”
Restaurants in districts of Baghdad like the embassy quarter in al-Mansur, where I once used to have lunch, are now far too dangerous to visit. Any foreigner on the streets is likely to be kidnapped or killed. In any case, most of the restaurants closed long ago.
It is difficult for Iraqis to avoid joining one side or the other in the conflict. Many districts, such as al-Hurriya in west Baghdad, have seen the minority – in this case the Sunni – driven out.
A Sunni friend called Adnan, living in the neighbouring district of al-Adel, was visited by Sunni militiamen. They said: “You must help us to protect you from the Shia in Hurriya by going on patrol with us. Otherwise, we will give your house to somebody who will help us.” He patrolled with the militiamen for several nights, clutching a Kalashnikov, and then fled the area.
The fear in Baghdad is so intense that rumors of even bloodier battles sweep through the city. Two weeks ago, many Sunni believed that the Shia Mehdi Army was going to launch a final “battle of Baghdad” aimed at killing or expelling the Sunni minority in the capital. The Sunni insurgents stored weapons and ammunition in order to make a last-ditch effort to defend their districts. In the event, they believe the ultimate battle was postponed at the last minute. Mr Bush insisted that the Iraqi government, with US military support, “must stop the sectarian violence in the capital”. Quite how they are going to do this is not clear. American reinforcements might limit the ability of death squads to roam at will for a few months, but this will not provide a long-term solution.
Mr Bush’s speech is likely to deepen sectarianism in Iraq by identifying the Shia militias with Iran. In fact, the most powerful Shia militia, the Mehdi Army, is traditionally anti-Iranian. It is the Badr Organisation, now co-operating with US forces, which was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. In the Arab world as a whole, Mr Bush seems to be trying to rally the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to support him in Iraq by exaggerating the Iranian threat.
Iraqis also wonder what will happen in the rest of Iraq while the US concentrates on trying to secure Baghdad. The degree of violence in the countryside is often underestimated because it is less reported than in the capital. In Baquba, the capital of Diyala province north-east of Baghdad, US and Iraqi army commanders were lauding their achievements at a press conference last weekend, claiming: “The situation in Baquba is reassuring and under control but there are some rumors circulated by bad people.” Within hours, Sunni insurgents kidnapped the mayor and blew up his office.
The situation in the south of Iraq is no more reassuring. Five American soldiers were killed in the Shia holy city of Karbala last Saturday by gunmen wearing American and Iraqi uniforms, carrying American weapons and driving vehicles used by US or Iraqi government forces. A licence plate belonging to a car registered to Iraq’s Minister of Trade was found on one of the vehicles used in the attack. It is a measure of the chaos in Iraq today that US officials do not know if their men were killed by Sunni or Shia guerrillas.
US commanders and the Mehdi Army seem to be edging away from all-out confrontation in Baghdad. Neither the US nor Iraqi government has the resources to eliminate the Shia militias. Even Kurdish units in the capital have a high number of desertions. The Mehdi Army, if under pressure in the capital, could probably take over much of southern Iraq.
Mr Bush’s supposedly new strategy is less of a strategy than a collection of tactics unlikely to change dramatically the situation on the ground. But if his systematic demonizing of Iran is a precursor to air strikes or other military action against Iran, then Iraqis will once more pay a heavy price.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.