Four years ago, in the middle of the US invasion, I drove safely from Arbil in northern Iraq to Baghdad. There were heaps of discarded weapons beside the road, and long lines of former Iraqi soldiers walking home. Signs of battle were few, aside from the hulks of burned-out tanks, but they all seemed to have been hit by US aircraft after their crews had fled.
If I tried to make the same journey today, I would be killed or kidnapped long before I reached Baghdad. Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi government dare not travel by road between the capital and their homeland. Three bodyguards of the Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, were ambushed and killed when they tried to do so a month ago.
Tony Blair and George Bush still occasionally imply that the picture of Iraq as a war-torn hell is an exaggeration by the media. They suggest, though not as forcibly as they did a couple of years ago, that parts of the country are relatively peaceful. Nothing could be more untrue.
In reality, the violence is grossly understated. The Baker-Hamilton report by senior Republicans and Democrats, led by James Baker, took a single day last summer, when the US army reported 93 acts of violence in Iraq, and asked American intelligence to re-examine the evidence. They found the real figure was 1,100–the US military had deliberately understated the violence by factor of over 10.
Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was not going to be the main problem when the US and Britain invaded four years ago. His army would fall apart, as it had done in 1991 when he was expelled from Kuwait, because Iraqis simply would not fight for him. But the outcome of the invasion of 2003 was predictably different from the war in 1991, and not just because there is now a large American army in the heart of the Middle East, destabilizing the whole region. US forces had not pressed on to Baghdad 16 years ago, partly because Washington did not want to see Saddam replaced by Shia religious parties with possible links to Iran. That is exactly what has happened now, because 60 per cent of the Iraqi population is Shia.
Less predictable was the disaster facing ordinary Iraqis. Most wanted rid of Saddam Hussein because they expected a better life after his fall. Since they had oil reserves comparable to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Iraqis felt, why could they not have an equivalent standard of living to Saudis and Kuwaitis?
In fact almost every aspect of Iraqi day-to-day life has got worse over the last four years. In May 2003, people in Baghdad were getting 16 to 24 hours of electricity a day. Today the official figure is just six hours a day–and even that is on the optimistic side. In a city with one of the hottest climates in the world, it is catastrophic when fridges, freezers or air conditioners cannot be used.
There are 4.8 million Iraqi children under the age of five, who have lived most of their lives since the fall of Saddam Hussein. UNICEF figures show that 20 per cent of them are so severely malnourished that their growth is stunted.
Under Saddam Hussein most Iraqis worked for the state. This worked well while he had oil revenues to pay them, but after 1990, UN sanctions meant that millions of people who had enjoyed a middle-class standard of living became totally impoverished, and four years ago more than half of Iraqis were unemployed. One of the worst scandals of the occupation is that they still are–although billions of dollars have been spent, billions were stolen.
For all the money supposedly being spent on developing the economy, there were no cranes to be seen in Baghdad except a cluster in the Green Zone, at work on a vast new American embassy.
But whatever the material failings of life, over the last four years it is the lack of security that has dominated everything else for Iraqis. By the end of 2003 I could already see mothers becoming hysterical at a school near my Baghdad hotel, because if they could not find their children they immediately feared that they had been kidnapped.
Since 2003, Iraqi life has become drenched by violence. Many Iraqis now carry two sets of papers, to pass through Sunni and Shia areas, but often it is not enough. The UN, using figures from Baghdad morgue and the Health Ministry, says 3,462 civilians were killed in Iraq in November and 2,914 in December. Many died at the hands of death squads, picked up on the street or caught at checkpoints.
The US troop reinforcements in Baghdad, the famous "surge", should make some difference to the casualty figures. But it is essentially a change in tactics masquerading as a change in strategy. Baghdad has fewer and fewer mixed Sunni and Shia districts. The Shia militias and Sunni insurgents have not disappeared, but are awaiting their moment to return.
People in Baghdad used to say that under Saddam Hussein, life was fairly safe if you kept out of politics. This was true of crime: during the war of 1991 I was once stranded in the semi-desert between Baghdad and Mosul when my car broke down, because the petrol in the tank had been watered down. I travelled on to Mosul, hitching lifts from farmers without any threat to my safety. If I did that today, I would be stopped and probably murdered at one of the official or unofficial checkpoints on the road.
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.