March 19, 2008
“It reminds me of Iraq under Saddam,” a militant opponent of Saddam Hussein said angrily to me last week as he watched red-capped Iraqi soldiers close down part of central Baghdad so the convoy of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, might briefly venture into the city.
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. and Iraqi governments claim that the country is becoming a less dangerous place, but the measures taken to protect Maliki told a different story. Gun-waving soldiers first cleared all traffic from the streets. Then four black armored cars, each with three machine-gunners on the roof, raced out of the Green Zone through a heavily fortified exit, followed by sand-colored American Humvees and more armored cars. Finally, in the middle of the speeding convoy, we saw six identical bulletproof vehicles with black windows, one of which must have been carrying Maliki.
The precautions were not excessive, since Baghdad remains the most dangerous city in the world. The Iraqi prime minister was only going to the headquarters of the Dawa party, to which he belongs and which are just half a mile outside the Green Zone, but his hundreds of security guards acted as if they were entering enemy territory.
Five years of occupation have destroyed Iraq as a country. Baghdad is today a collection of hostile Sunni and Shiite ghettoes divided by high concrete walls. Different districts even have different national flags. Sunni areas use the old Iraqi flag with the three stars of the Baath party, and the Shiite wave a newer version, adopted by the Shiite-Kurdish government. The Kurds have their own flag.
The Iraqi government tries to give the impression that normality is returning. Iraqi journalists are told not to mention the continuing violence. When a bomb exploded in Karada district near my hotel, killing 70 people, the police beat and drove away a television cameraman trying to take pictures of the devastation. Civilian casualties have fallen from 65 Iraqis killed daily from November 2006 to August 2007 to 26 daily in February. But the fall in the death rate is partly because ethnic cleansing has already done its grim work and in much of Baghdad there are no mixed areas left.
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