A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq, by US-led forces on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)
Ten years ago, Iraqis, even if they had originally opposed them, hoped that the US invasion and occupation would at least bring an end to the suffering they had endured under UN sanctions and other disasters stemming from defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991. Today, people in Baghdad complain that they still live in a permanent state of crisis because of sectarian and criminal violence, pervasive corruption, a broken infrastructure and a dysfunctional government. Many Iraqis say that what they want in 2013 is the same as what they wanted in 2003, which is a visa enabling them to move to another country, where they can get a job.
Baghdad was once a city where Sunni, Shiite and Christian lived side by side, conscious that they belonged to different sects but not frightened of one another. This all changed during the 2006–08 civil war, during which, at its peak, more than 3,700 Iraqis died in a single month, the great majority of them in Baghdad. “There are not many mixed areas left today,” says a Shiite woman who lives with her mother in a Sunni-majority district and tries to hide her sectarian identity from her Sunni neighbors. At the moment, she is worried that she may be asked to give evidence against one of these neighbors, who is in prison charged with murdering a Shiite man five years ago. She suspects he also left a round of ammunition in front of her house as a threat. She does not want to give evidence against him, as it would become obvious she is a Shiite, leaving her open to retaliation.
The sectarian civil war was at its most intense in Baghdad and the central provinces of Iraq, where a third of the country’s 33 million people live. It ended with a decisive defeat for the Sunnis, who were driven out of most of east Baghdad, and in west Baghdad were compressed into several large enclaves surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods. Iraqi friends say blithely that “everything is safe now,” but they don’t act as if they really believe it. They become nervous when they enter hard-core areas controlled by another community or, if living in a mixed district, they panic if there is the slightest threat, such as a hostile slogan on a wall or an anonymous leaflet. After what happened before, nobody is going to take a chance. Even today, there is a constant drumbeat of bombings and assassinations; 220 Iraqis were killed and 571 injured in February alone.
Ali Abdul-Karim, a successful real estate broker, told me he thought people were too quick to flee on hearing a rumor. But he went on to speak about the problems besetting a property sale he is trying to arrange that underline the dangerous complexities of living in Baghdad. He said his client in this case is a former intelligence captain under Saddam Hussein. He owns a bee farm in a notoriously violent Sunni area on the southern fringes of Baghdad called Arab Jabour. The captain moved out of the area because he was threatened by Al Qaeda for refusing to cooperate with them, but his 80-year-old father refuses to leave the farm. In the meantime, the captain has been imprisoned by the government because of his former membership in Saddam’s secret police.
* * *
A problem in understanding present-day Iraq is that US military successes after 2007 were exaggerated to make the final military withdrawal at the end of 2011 look less like a confession of failure. The surge—the offensive by 30,000 US reinforcements in 2007—was lauded by the Western media at the time for stopping a civil war and defeating the Sunni insurgents, though in reality it was a good deal less than that. In practice, the establishing of US outposts and the building of dozens of kilometers of concrete-slab walls during the surge simply froze in place the new sectarian map of Baghdad, leaving the Shiites dominant. Their territory is easily identifiable because of Shiite religious banners flying from the tops of buildings and posters showing Shiite leaders and martyrs, such as Muqtada al-Sadr and his father or Imam Ali and Imam Hussein, pasted to every wall.