Driving to the Amriya district in western Baghdad in February, my friend pointed to a gap in the concrete walls with which the US occupation forces have surrounded this Sunni bastion. “We call it the Rafah Crossing,” he joked, referring to the one gate from besieged Gaza to Egypt that another occupying army occasionally allows to open. Iraqi National Police loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army had once regularly attacked Amriya, and not long ago Sunnis caught in their checkpoints, which we drove through anxiously, would have been found in the city morgue. Shiite flags these policemen had recently put up all around western Baghdad were viewed as a provocation by the residents of Amriya. When we got out of the car so Iraqi soldiers could search it, a US soldier led his dog around to sniff it, and I was patted down by one of the Sunni militiamen. Not knowing I was an American, he reassured me. “Just let the dog and the dog that is with him finish with your car and you can go,” he said, laughing.

We drove past residents forced to trudge long distances in and out of their neighborhood, past the tall concrete walls, because their cars had not been given permission to exit. Boys labored behind pushcarts, wheeling in goods for the shops that were open. One elderly woman in a black robe complained loudly that the Americans were to blame for all her problems. Amriya had been a stronghold of the Iraqi resistance since the early days of the occupation, and after Falluja was destroyed in late 2004 resistance members as well as angry displaced Sunnis poured in. Shiites were attacked even if they were former Baathists, their bodies found lying on the streets every day.

But by 2005, Shiite militias had been empowered by the Iraqi government; they began to punish Sunnis, with the help of the US military. Sunnis were pushed into the hands of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Soon more nationalist and less oppressive Sunni resistance groups clashed with extremists and rid themselves of Al Qaeda. The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty by giving aid to these groups, but in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans. They describe the cooperation as a temporary cease-fire with the US occupation so that they can regroup to fight the “Iranian occupation,” which is how they refer to the Shiite-dominated government and security forces.

The Americans forced the Iraqi government to promise 20 percent of these Sunni militiamen a place in the security forces, but those from Amriya who sought to join have been harassed and abused. They do not recognize the government of Iraq and view it as their main oppressor, which is why they stopped fighting the Americans. The Iraqi government will not integrate the Sunni militiamen into its regular forces, and the Sunni militiamen will not be demobilized. At a time when militias are the main problem in Iraq, the Americans have created more and are creating other institutions–such as neighborhood and district councils–that are separate from the Iraqi state, further supporting the fragmentation of a deeply divided country.

Forty percent of Amriya’s homes have been abandoned, their owners expelled or having fled, and more than 5,000 Sunni families from elsewhere in Iraq have moved in, mostly to homes abandoned by Shiites. Of those who fled to Syria, about one-fifth returned in late 2007, after their money ran out. The Ministry of Migration, officially responsible for displaced Iraqis, has done nothing for them. The Ministry of Health, dominated by sectarian Shiites, neglected Amriya or sent expired medicines to its clinics. There is no hospital in the area, but Amriya’s Sunnis are too scared to go to hospitals outside because Shiite militias might kidnap and kill them. As elsewhere in Iraq, the government-run ration system, upon which nearly all Iraqis had relied for their survival before the US invasion, does not reach the Sunnis of Amriya often, and when it does, most items are lacking. Children have been suffering from calcium deficiency as a result. More than 2,000 children have been orphaned in Amriya in the past few years.

Around the same time I went to Amriya, I was smuggled into the Shiite bastion of Washash, a slum adjacent to the formerly upscale Mansur district. Washash was walled off as well, unusual for a Shiite area. “We are like Palestine,” a local tribal leader told me. I first visited Washash in April 2003, when its unpaved streets were awash with sewage and the nascent Mahdi Army was asserting itself. The Mahdi Army, now firmly controlling the area, had brutally slaughtered or expelled nearly all the Sunnis. Mahdi Army raids into neighboring Mansur to fight Al Qaeda or otherwise terrorize locals had prompted the Americans to surround Washash with walls, wiping out its markets, which had depended on nearby districts for their clientele. Washash’s Shiites complained about sectarian abuse from the Iraqi Army. The Mahdi Army provided what services there were, and as militiamen gave me a tour, I filmed them. Somebody alerted the Iraqi Army, and its soldiers came looking for me. Mahdi Army men smuggled me out through a small exit in the walls, handing me over to Iraqi National Police for protection. “They are from our group,” meaning from the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militiamen assured me.

This is Baghdad today: fiefdoms run by warlords and militiamen. The Americans call them gated communities. In Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, I found that displaced Iraqis, said to be more aggressive than locals, were overwhelmingly joining militias. The Bush Administration and the US military have stopped talking of Iraq as a grand project of nation-building, and the US media have dutifully done the same. They too have abandoned any larger narrative, presenting Iraq as a series of small pieces. Just as Iraq is physically deconstructed, so too is it intellectually deconstructed, not as an occupied country undergoing several civil wars but as small stories of local heroes and villains, of well-meaning American soldiers, of good news here and progress there. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Most embedded journalists, just like embedded politicians and members of think tanks on Washington’s K Street, lack language skills and time on the ground in Iraq–and since they are white, they cannot travel around Baghdad without attracting attention and getting kidnapped or killed. They know nothing about Iraq except what they gain second- or thirdhand, too often information provided by equally disconnected members of the US military. Recently we have seen positive articles about events in Iraq published by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic International Studies, Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Russia expert Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, who insists Iraq is not an occupied country. Kagan, like the other alleged experts, speaks no Arabic and was baby-sat for a few days by American soldiers. But it seems that these and other propagandists for the war, with Thomas Friedman being the greatest criminal in this category, manage to maintain their credibility no matter how much they get wrong.

They should ask Iraqis, or the journalists who courageously risk their lives to spend enough time with Iraqis to serve as their interlocutors–such as Leila Fadel of McClatchy, Ghaith Abdul Ahad of the Guardian or Patrick Cockburn of the London Independent–what is actually happening in Iraq, rather than continue to deceive the American people with the fantasy of “victory.” It is true that fewer US soldiers are dying today, but that is not the proper metric of success. Of course fewer Americans are dying; in 2006 the conflict in Iraq stopped being a war of national liberation against the American occupiers and became chiefly a war among Iraqis for domination of Iraq. The proper standard for judging Iraq is the quality of life for Iraqis, and, sadly for most, life was better under Saddam.

There is no reconciliation among the various warring communities. Shiites will not allow the territorial gains they’ve made to be chipped away by Sunnis returning to their homes, and they are determined to keep the Sunni militias out of power. Violence is slightly down in Iraq in large part because the goal of an earlier stage of the conflict–removing Sunnis from Shiite areas and Shiites from Sunni areas–has largely succeeded, and there are fewer people to kill. There may be many years of bloodshed left before equilibrium can be attained.

Many Americans are also unaware that a foreign military occupation is a systematic imposition of violence and terror on an entire people. The Americans are not peacekeepers; they are not there to “help” the Iraqi people. At least 24,000 Iraqis languish in American-run prisons. At least 900 of these are juveniles, some of whom are forced to go through a brainwashing program called the House of Wisdom, where US officers arrogantly lecture Muslims about Islam. The Americans are supposed to hand over Iraqi prisoners to Iraqi authorities, but international human rights officials are loath to press the issue because conditions in Iraqi prisons are at least as bad as they were under Saddam. One US officer told me that six years is a life sentence in an Iraqi prison today, because that is your estimated life span there. In the women’s prison in Khadimiya prisoners are routinely raped.

Conditions in Iraqi prisons got much worse during the surge because the Iraqi system could not cope with the massive influx. Even those Iraqis in American detention do not know why they are being held, and they are never visited by defense lawyers. The Americans can hold Iraqis indefinitely, so they don’t even have to be tried by Iraqi courts. A fraction are tried in courts where Americans also testify. But the direct observers I’ve talked to have yet to see a trial where they are convinced the accused is guilty and there is valid evidence that is properly examined, with no coerced confessions. Lawyers don’t see their clients before trials, and there are no witnesses. Iraqi judges are prepared to convict on very little evidence. But even if Iraqi courts find Iraqi prisoners innocent, the Americans sometimes continue to hold them after acquittal. There are currently about 500 of these “on hold” cases. The Americans continue to arrest all men of military age when looking for suspects, to break into homes and traumatize sleeping families and to bomb heavily populated areas, killing civilians routinely. Recently the Americans killed civilians while bombing Tikrit, and now the Americans are serving as the air force for the Shiite militias they are backing–Dawa and the Badr militia–against the rival Sadrists. In the last week of March a one-day curfew was imposed in Baghdad and then extended for additional days; people simply venturing out of their homes were threatened with detention.

Though Americans like John McCain attribute the lull in violence to the surge, the decline coincided almost exactly with Sadr’s decision to impose a freeze, often mistranslated as a cease-fire, on his Mahdi Army militia. This clearly demonstrated who was most responsible for the violence over the past year. It also coincided with another phenomenon that was not part of the American plan but came as a boon to the beleaguered Bush Administration. Members of the Sunni resistance who fought the Americans and engaged in organized crime grew weary of the radicals in Anbar province, who undermined traditional authority figures and harmed smuggling routes. After the resistance groups rebelled against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Americans started paying other Sunni militias in Baghdad to do the same. But when the Americans tried to repeat the Anbar model in violent Diyala province, they failed.

In Baghdad the small Sunni militias that Americans pay view themselves not as security guards or concerned citizens but as part of a Sunni movement to take back their country from the Shiites. This is a nightmare for the Iraqi government, which succeeded in expelling most of Baghdad’s Sunnis and turning the capital into a mostly Shiite city. Now, thanks to the Americans, the Sunnis, formerly on the run, once again control their own territory. The Americans have never grasped the importance of ideology and resistance to occupation. They insist that Iraqis join militias and the resistance for the money, and so they believe that Iraqis are joining American-backed militias for the money too. But the Sunnis the Americans are paying today joined the resistance out of a desire to fight the occupiers, to protect themselves, to seize power, to kill Shiites and “Persians,” for an array of reasons, none of them financial. Likewise, men joined the Mahdi Army, which does not provide salaries, not for the money but out of loyalty to the Sadrist movement, out of solidarity with their Shiite brethren or out of fear of Sunni attack. Until late March the Mahdi Army was consolidating its forces, ridding itself of unruly elements and waiting out the surge. Sunnis and Shiites were preparing to resume fighting. But even among Shiites, there is no unity. Likewise there is no Sunni unity, and various Sunni militias compete for power and resources. When fighting resumes, we could see wholesale slaughter. Syria and Jordan, the main safe havens for Iraqis in the first round of the civil war, have now virtually closed their borders to refugees. Eleven of Iraq’s eighteen governorates have closed their borders to internally displaced Iraqis. There will be nowhere to run when round two of the civil war begins.