In Baghdad the Iraqi government is eager to give the impression that peace is returning. ‘Not a single sectarian murder or displacement was reported in over a month,’ claimed Brigadier Qasim Ata, the spokesman for the city’s security plan. In the US, the surge – the dispatch of 30,000 more American troops in the first half of 2007 – is portrayed as having turned the tide. Democrats in Congress no longer call aggressively for a withdrawal of American troops. The supposed military success has revived the previously languishing campaign of the hawkish John McCain, who will now almost certainly be his party’s candidate for the presidency.

Seldom has the official Iraqi and American perception of what is happening in Iraq felt so different from the reality. Barricaded behind the walls of the Green Zone, defended by everybody from US soldiers to Peruvian and Ugandan mercenaries, Nouri al-Maliki’s government pumps out tales of life returning to normal that border on fantasy. Brigadier Ata made his claim on 15 February; but two weeks earlier, on 1 February, suicide bombers – members of al-Qaida, the government said – had blown themselves up, killing 99 people in two bird markets in Baghdad, both situated in largely Shia districts. So keen are the authorities to show that Sunni and Shia have stopped killing each other and that violence is down overall that many deaths with an obvious sectarian motive are no longer recorded. ‘I think the real figure for the number of people being killed is about twice what the government says it is,’ one local politician told me. He had just sent the death certificates of some victims of sectarian killers to the military authorities, who refused to admit that anybody had died at the time and place that the bodies were discovered.

The day after Ata made his claim, Maliki himself went on a walkabout in central Baghdad to demonstrate how safe things have become. However, the precautions taken by his bodyguards suggested otherwise. This brief venture out of the Green Zone took place in the al-Mansur district of west Baghdad, an area of big houses and many embassies that has been heavily fought over by Sunni and Shia in the past year. ‘I was in Mansur on Saturday afternoon,’ an Iraqi friend told me, ‘when, at about 3.15 p.m., I noticed a strange movement in the street. A sudden flood of soldiers in green uniform, led by generals and colonels, were checking parked cars and buildings.’ Minutes later a large convoy of vehicles arrived, with three US army Humvees in front and behind, and, in the middle, five armoured four-wheel drives. They stopped in front of the al-Ruwaad ice-cream shop but for fifteen minutes nobody got out of the vehicles as soldiers searched all the shops nearby. When the officials and their guards emerged Maliki was in the middle of them and began to walk around. ‘Everybody was scared when they saw him because they thought his presence might lead to an attack,’ my friend said. ‘Some women began to run away and I thought it was too dangerous for me to stay. I heard that Maliki gave 500,000 Iraqi dinars’ – £200 – ‘each to a woman who said her husband had been killed in a bomb explosion and a blind beggar.’ Maliki also bought two suits from a well-known shop called Mario Zengotti, which promptly shut down, the owner presumably calculating that Baghdad is full of people who might kill him for selling clothes to the prime minister.

Baghdad is ‘better’ than it was, but only in comparison to the bloodbath of 2006, when three thousand people were being killed every month. People stay inside their own Sunni or Shia ghettoes. I drove through west Baghdad one night at around 8 p.m., sitting in the back of a police car with a second military vehicle full of heavily armed soldiers and police behind. Though I was driving in the heart of the capital I saw only three civilian cars during a three or four-mile journey through a maze of military checkpoints and fortifications. In Shia-dominated east Baghdad, where there has been less fighting, more shops are open but there are few customers. The city is still paralysed by fear. The growth in the number of checkpoints is not entirely good news because it has always been a favourite tactic of kidnappers and death squads to set up fake checkpoints to stop and identify potential victims. More reassuring is the fact that the Mehdi Army militia, the military wing of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which killed so many Sunni at the height of the slaughter, is still abiding by a strictly enforced six-month ceasefire on Sadr’s orders. The killings have not stopped but there are fewer of them.

Baghdad is entirely divided between Sunni and Shia; the sectarianism is as deep-seated as it was before the fall in violence. In many areas, Iraqis say bitterly, ‘the killing stopped because there was nobody left to kill.’ There are very few mixed neighbourhoods left. The Mehdi Army still exists as a parallel government just beneath the surface in Shia areas, which take up most of the city. A friend who was trying to sell a large house for $300,000 had to pay a $25,000 bribe to government officials to get the sale registered. No sooner had he paid up than the Mehdi Army demanded another $15,000 for the sale to go through, money he reluctantly paid on the grounds that it was too risky to refuse. Baghdad remains the most dangerous city in the world. Very few of the 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled abroad, mostly to Jordan and Syria, are coming back, despite the fact that many families live miserably in a single rented room in Damascus or Amman.

Again, the Iraqi government has tried to prove the opposite. Last November it paid for a highly publicised convoy of buses to bring Iraqis home from Syria, an exercise designed to give the impression that hundreds of people were returning to peaceful Baghdad. It never happened. Three months later, despite much tougher Syrian visa regulations, the flow is still out of Iraq. The latest figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees show that the number of Iraqis entering Syria from Iraq was 1200 a day in late January ‘while an average of 700 are going back to Iraq from Syria’.

The surge, along with the Mehdi Army truce and the emergence of al-Sahwa, the anti-al-Qaida Sunni militia, has helped to seal the demographic outcome of the ferocious battle for Baghdad that took place after the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006. It was a battle won by the Shia: the Sunni, always a minority, were pushed back into a few enclaves, mostly in west Baghdad, or forced to leave Iraq. Sunnis make up a disproportionate number of the refugees in Syria and Jordan and many, particularly the better educated, will never return. The Shia also suffered, but they outnumber the Sunni by three to one in Iraq and now control 75 per cent of the capital. Far more than the surge, the battle for Baghdad and central Iraq has determined the political landscape of Iraq for the foreseeable future.

The shooting may have died down for the moment, but the killings of 2006 and early 2007 have left a legacy of hatred and fear. Even the most liberal-minded Sunni and Shia no longer feel at ease in each other’s company. The story of one family from al-Khudat, a middle-class Sunni neighbourhood in west Baghdad, explains why the city is going to remain divided. The victims in this case were Shia, but what happened to them, and how they reacted to it, is typical of refugee families elsewhere in Iraq. The family had lived in al-Khudat for thirty years and was well liked by its Sunni neighbours. The father of the family died two years ago, leaving his 55-year-old widow, Umm Hadi, who had been a primary school teacher, to support their four sons and three daughters. Early in 2007 it became so dangerous for Shia in al-Khudat that the family fled to Syria after asking the neighbours to look after their house. Umm Hadi did not like it there. ‘We thought we were just going for a short time,’ she says. ‘The Syrians mistreated us and charged us a lot of money, so we decided to come back to Baghdad.’

On Umm Hadi’s return from Syria a year later, she and her family found that their house had been taken by a Sunni family from al-Amel, another embattled area; they refused to leave. Umm Hadi and her sons, all grown up, were too frightened to call the police or the Americans. Instead they moved to Hurriyah in north-west Baghdad, which once was mixed but is now controlled by the Mehdi Army and the Shia. Hadi, the eldest brother, who works as a carpenter, was dispirited when he was asked on 1 February what he intended to do. ‘We were so surprised that our house was taken and that our dear neighbours allowed this to happen,’ he said. ‘There is nothing we can do to force these people to leave because they might retaliate by attacking me or my brothers or even blow up the house.’ He was interrupted by his mother; her face quivering with anger, Umm Hadi said she was not going to surrender so easily. ‘It is true that we are poor people,’ she said, ‘but that does not mean that we are weak. We can call on our strong Shia arm’ – apparently a reference to the Mehdi Army – ‘to get our house back. I have information that one of the sons of the family who took it is working in a petrol station. It would be a good message to send his dead body to them if they insist on staying.’ At this point one of her sons tried to excuse her, saying that she had ‘suffered a lot since we came back to Iraq; she is a kind woman and does not mean what she says.’ A week later, on 8 February, the father of the Sunni family who had taken their house was found shot dead in his car in west Baghdad.

Perplexity among non-Iraqis about what is going on in Iraq stems primarily from a failure to understand that after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, two wars started up in the country. One was between the US occupation forces and the Sunni, rulers of Iraq for centuries. This war went surprisingly well for the Sunni. They inflicted significant losses, now approaching four thousand dead, on the US army; this, while not militarily crippling, was politically unsustainable in America. But the Sunni were also fighting a second war against the Shia majority, and they were losing badly. They had lost control of the Iraqi state machine with the fall of the old regime. The elections of 2005 gave the Shia, in alliance with the Kurds, control of parliament, the government, army and police, albeit under partial American tutelage. The Sunni came to regard the Interior Ministry as the headquarters of the death squads; the Health Ministry was believed to have torture chambers for Sunni in its basement. If this weren’t enough, the Sunni were being squeezed by the murderous killers of al-Qaida, who slaughtered all who opposed them and were seeking to set up a Taliban-like enclave to be called the Islamic State of Iraq.

By the end of 2006 many Sunni leaders were coming to see that they could not afford to have so many enemies. The non-al-Qaida Sunni guerrilla groups were less fragmented than they looked: their common background as Baathists, former military and security officers and tribal leaders, made it easier for them to make collective decisions. They formed al-Sahwa, the Awakening movement, which was allied to the Americans and against al-Qaida. It was also either against the Iraqi government or not under its control, though al-Sahwa and the US military played this down. The Americans themselves were surprised by the speed with which the movement spread: there are now some eighty thousand al-Sahwa fighters, constituting a powerful Sunni militia armed and paid for by the US.

The US called the al-Sahwa fighters ‘concerned local citizens’ and later ‘Sons of Iraq’, seeking to give the impression that they were simple tribal folk who had turned on al-Qaida. In fact they are the same Sunni guerrillas who have been fighting the US for five years. Their leaders have a very clear idea of what they are doing and why. On 26 January I went to see Abu Marouf, whose full name is Karim Ismail Hassan al-Zubai, the leader of 13,000 al-Sahwa fighters between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib to the west of Baghdad, a strategically important area that has seen the heaviest fighting of the war. I counted 27 checkpoints between central Baghdad and Abu Marouf’s headquarters in a half-ruined villa, hastily fortified with heavy machine-gun emplacements, down a rutted track running between irrigation canals and reedbeds near the village of Khandari. He expressed anger with the Iraqi government for not giving him and his men ‘long-term jobs in the security services’ and with the Americans for not paying his men. He threatened to go to war against both in three months unless his demands were met. A thin-faced man in a brown suit and a tie, he said he was a former security officer under Saddam and later a fighter against the Americans. He would not say which guerrilla group he belonged to, but he is believed to have been a commander in the ‘1920 Revolution Brigades’. ‘If the Americans think they can use us against al-Qaida and then push us to one side,’ he said, ‘they are mistaken.’ He called Nouri al-Maliki’s government ‘the worst government in the world’.

There is no doubt that these former Sunni guerrillas are very much in control of the Fallujah region as far south as an area, near Yusufiyah, that used to be known as the ‘triangle of death’. The city of Fallujah itself, scene of the climactic battle between Sunni fighters and US Marines in November 2004, is run by a police colonel, Feisal Ismail Hassan al-Zubai, who is Abu Marouf’s elder brother. Like him, Feisal candidly admits that up to the end of 2006, when he was appointed to his present job, he was fighting the Americans. ‘What would you do,’ he asked, ‘if your country was occupied?’ On his desk is a picture of himself in uniform as a young officer, along with other officers, in the Iraqi army’s Special Forces, which he joined in the 1980s. He and his brother use the word ‘militia’ to describe Shia-dominated institutions. When I asked why he had switched from fighting against the Americans to fighting with them, Feisal said: ‘When we compared the Americans to the militia and al-Qaida, we decided we should choose the Americans.’

The present American strategy may look like smart politics back in Washington. It is better to pay Sunni gunmen $300 a month to guard the road than have them planting bombs along it to blow up American Humvees. The US is losing one soldier a day compared to a daily toll of three or four a year ago. Since American casualties are the main barometer by which the US electorate judges success or failure in Iraq, these are important figures in an election year. The lower American casualties also reflect an important political change in Iraq. The Sunni and Shia now hate and fear each other more than they do the Americans. This puts the US in a stronger position because it can control the balance of power between the two communities. The Sunni in Baghdad would prefer to have American soldiers kick down their door in the middle of the night than the Shia-dominated Iraqi army and police, who are likely to torture and kill them. In many ways the US position in Iraq is like Syria’s status in Lebanon between 1976 and 2005, when it partly occupied the country. The Syrian army prevented the civil war from escalating, but also stopped anything being resolved between the different communities.

The US cannot play this intermediary role for long. The fact is that neither Sunni nor Shia Arabs in Iraq want the US to stay. It would be very easy for any of the myriad armed groups in Iraq to launch an offensive and send American military casualties soaring. With the rise of al-Sahwa, the country is more divided than ever. The Sunni now have their own private army, as do the Shia and the Kurds. The greatest success of the surge has been to promote the illusion in the US that ‘things are getting better in Iraq.’ But in the struggle over who will hold power in Iraq nothing is decided and fighting just as ferocious as anything we have seen in the past could erupt at any moment.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences