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Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary

33 minute read
Bobby Ghosh

A knot begins to form in my stomach exactly at 8 a.m., when I step into the small Fokker F-28 jet that will take me and 50 other passengers from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad. I know what lies ahead: an hour’s uneventful flying over unchanging desert, followed by the world’s scariest landing–a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport. Then an eight-mile drive into the city along what’s known as the Highway of Death. I’ve made this trip more than 20 times since Royal Jordanian’s civilian flights started three years ago, and you’d expect it would get easier. But the knot takes hold in my stomach every time.

I scan the cabin for familiar faces. The 50-odd passengers include the usual suspects–Western “security consultants” in faux fatigues, Iraqi officials in dark suits. And some surprises, like the three women in white Indian saris with blue borders. The nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, are a comforting sight. One of them, Sister Benedetta, kindly gives me a laminated picture of the soon-to-be saint and a genuine relic–a microchip-size piece of Teresa’s sari. A lapsed Hindu, I’m nonetheless grateful for any and all gifts that purport to holiness; somewhere in my bags are a tiny sandalwood Ganesha, pages of the New Testament and a string of Islamic prayer beads. In Iraq, you want to have God–anybody’s God–within easy reach.

Sister Benedetta smiles politely when I joke that many of our fellow passengers will be calling to their maker when the plane begins its hellish descent. To avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents, the pilot must stay at 30,000 ft. until the plane is directly over Baghdad airport, then bank into a spiraling dive, straightening up just yards from the runway. If you’re looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can’t possibly pull out. I’ve learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.

The only thing worse than the view from the window is being seated next to someone who hasn’t taken the flight before. During one especially difficult landing in 2004, a retired American cop wouldn’t stop screaming “Oh, God! Oh, God!” I finally had to slap him on the face–on instructions from the flight attendant. Another time the man in the window seat was a muscular, heavily tattooed Polynesian ex-commando who spent an hour telling me of his life as a mercenary in a succession of South Pacific island nations–stories that often ended with his punching, stabbing or shooting somebody. When the Fokker began its steep descent, he began whimpering to Jesus and grabbing my forearm so tight, I felt my palm go cold from lack of circulation.

On this occasion, to my relief, the guy next to me is a fellow journalist and veteran of the nightmare landings. Even so, as we begin the descent, I move my hand away from the armrest. Looking over my shoulder, I see a familiar expression on the faces of my co-passengers: a mixture of fear and resignation. Sister Benedetta is staring up at the ceiling, her lips moving in prayer. I reach into my shirt pocket and surreptitiously rub my fingers over that laminated picture. When the Fokker’s wheels hit the tarmac, 50 people sigh in unison, 50 stomachs unclench. But the relief is temporary; most of us still have to negotiate the Highway of Death. There have been hundreds of insurgent and terrorist attacks along its length since the U.S. military established its largest Iraqi base, Camp Victory, next to the airport three years ago. Many of the attacks are directed at U.S. patrols, but they have also killed scores of Iraqi noncombatants. Last summer two of my Iraqi colleagues were badly wounded when a roadside bomb went off next to their car on the Highway of Death; twice I’ve been caught in cross fire between insurgents and U.S. soldiers.

Recently the highway has become less deadly–perhaps the only place in Baghdad that can make such a claim. The once daily attacks along the road have given way to occasional strikes, like the twin suicide bombings in May that killed 14 Iraqis near Checkpoint 1, where arriving travelers meet transport waiting to take them into the city. U.S. officials claim the decline in attacks as a victory for military strategy, attributing it to the greatly increased visibility of Iraqi soldiers along the road. My contacts in the insurgency offer an alternative, equally plausible explanation: there are fewer U.S. patrols and convoys on the road than before, fewer targets to attack.

Although a ride on the Highway of Death once exaggerated the dangers lurking in Baghdad, it now does the opposite, lulling newcomers into a false sense of security. Even as the airport route has got somewhat safer, huge portions of the Iraqi capital have become far more dangerous. I pass one of those on the drive into the city: Amariyah, the mainly Sunni suburb adjacent to Camp Victory and home to Mahmud, one of my Iraqi colleagues. (The names of most of TIME’s Iraqi employees have been changed in this article for their protection; working for a foreign company makes them targets for insurgents, and many lie, even to their closest neighbors, about what they do for a living.) A couple of years ago, it was easy to visit with Mahmud’s family in their sand-colored two-story home; last year it became too perilous for foreigners after insurgent groups began operating in the area. Now, even Iraqis feel unsafe in Amariyah. Mahmud began to move out his extended family earlier this year when the neighborhood was taken over by a jihadi gang that imposed an extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Women were forbidden to drive, men were ordered not to wear shorts, and shops selling Western goods were firebombed.

As we drive past, I can hear a gun battle somewhere–the deep rumble of U.S. military M-16s and the higher-pitch clatter of AK-47s. The gunfire is a momentary distraction for Wisam, my driver, who is telling me about yesterday’s atrocity–66 people killed when a suicide bomber detonated himself in a crowded market in the Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City. Last year that giant slum was the safest district in Baghdad. Now I mentally add it to the list of neighborhoods I can enter only at great risk.

Like many Iraqis, Wisam likes to drive pedal to the metal, and while it’s a good idea to get away from Amariyah as fast as possible, I am acutely conscious that I’m not wearing my seat belt. Iraqis never wear one, and for me to buckle up would be like sticking a FOREIGNER ON BOARD sign on the windshield, a bad idea in a city where kidnapping gangs are known to cruise for lucrative targets. As an Indian, I can often pass for a local if I keep my mouth shut–my Arabic is rudimentary–but in public places I have to be careful to avoid other obvious signs of foreignness: seat belts, chewing gum, headphones.

To bring me up to date with the news, Wisam rattles off a long list of recent atrocities: a high-profile kidnapping here, a massacre there, a car bombing someplace else. Long before we reach the city, I’ve heard so many ghastly things that the harrowing flight is already a fading memory. Sensing my sinking spirits, Wisam apologizes for the overdose of grim tidings. “You know how it is in Iraq,” he says with a grin. “All news is bad news.” Then he tells me about the 10 bodies that were discovered in his neighborhood in the past few days, all of them his fellow Shi’ites. The bodies were decapitated, the heads never found. He tells me how, since a suicide bombing in a nearby neighborhood, his wife has been suffering anxiety attacks when she goes shopping. I feel ashamed that a mere hour’s worth of Baghdad’s reality has brought me down; Wisam and his family live it all the time.

For Iraqis, reality is not just a suicide bomber in a crowded marketplace or militias running amuck in the streets. It is an accumulation of daily dangers and dilemmas–and the growing certainty that things are about to get worse. American officials and Iraqi politicians who live and work in the fortified bubble of the Green Zone are still reluctant to use the words civil war. At the start of this year, they were dismissing an all-out battle between sects as impossible. In March they were saying it was improbable. Now they cautiously suggest it is not inevitable. And that’s the optimistic perspective. A more despairing assessment was on display last week in departing British Ambassador William Patey’s final diplomatic memo to London. “The prospect of a low intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy,” Patey wrote in his message, which was leaked to the British media. For ordinary Iraqis who live on the other side of the Green Zone’s tall walls, the time to debate if and when civil war will start is past: it is already under way. It’s a view that I share. After three years of dwindling optimism over Iraq’s future, I now feel a mounting pessimism.

In the Red Zone (the name given to the rest of Baghdad by Green Zoners too nervous to venture outside the walls), the sporadic spurts of violence between Shi’ites and Sunnis have given way to a steady stream of blood. Partisans on both sides are arming themselves for battle, and ordinary folks are looking for ways to defend themselves. Owing to soaring demand, the price of a Chinese-made AK-47 has quadrupled, to $200, since the start of the year; the Russian-made version has doubled, to $600. The U.N. reports that nearly 6,000 Iraqis were killed in May and June, more than in any comparable period since the fall of Saddam. These days, almost all the killing is Iraqi on Iraqi. Many people are abandoning neighborhoods that were harmoniously mixed for centuries, instead seeking the safety of all-Shi’ite or Sunni-only districts. The government says more than 180,000 people have become refugees in their own country; tens of thousands of others are fleeing Iraq altogether. The political leadership, from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on down, lacks both the stature and the will to bridge the chasm between the two communities. Caught in the middle, the U.S. military is unable to halt the bloodshed. Wisam is right: Iraq’s news these days is all bad.

As a result, Iraqis have little time for other people’s tragedies. The news from Lebanon has dominated Arab channels like al-Jazeera in recent weeks, but it hasn’t resonated much with Iraqis. Politicians, especially Shi’ite leaders with ties to Iran, have issued predictable broadsides against Israel; some, like the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, have blamed the U.S. too. He orchestrated a large pro-Hizballah demonstration in his Sadr City stronghold last week–a protest against the bombing in Lebanon but also a piece of political theater designed to showcase the strength of his support (and a response to a muscle-flexing rally organized earlier by a rival Shi’ite leader). For the most part, ordinary Iraqis, although sympathetic to their coreligionists in Lebanon, have shown little interest in a conflict that seems both far away and from another era–a leftover war from the 20th century. Not only are the protagonists familiar, but so too are their tactics and weapons: Israeli artillery, Hizballah rockets.

Those looking for parallels in Iraq will find few. The war in Iraq is about 21st century issues, like terrorism and extremist Islam. The very survival of a nation hangs in the balance. It is a murky battlefield, where combatants are hard to identify and alliances shift constantly, so nothing and nobody are predictable. Even the weapons are postmodern: improvised explosive devices, car bombs, suicide bombers. And the Iraq war is far deadlier; on almost any given day, casualty figures in Baghdad alone dwarf those in Lebanon and Israel combined. At the house TIME uses as its base in Baghdad, our staff of 25 Iraqis snort disdainfully as news broadcasters announce the daily death toll in the Levant. “They count their dead in dozens. We count ours in hundreds,” says Ali al-Shaheen, our bureau manager. Only when Israeli bombs killed 28 people in the Lebanese village of Qana did it register on al-Shaheen’s radar. Watching the images of the carnage, he declares, “Now they know how Iraqis live.”

Every so often, something happens that causes the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration to announce that a turning point has arrived for the beleaguered country. In the month that I was away from Baghdad, there were two such events: the killing of terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi and the appointment, after weeks of political haggling, of new ministers of Defense and the Interior. The ministers, a Sunni and Shi’ite, respectively, had been touted as independent and nonsectarian–new brooms to brush away the rampant corruption in the two crucial security ministries. Interior, in particular, would be cleansed of the Shi’ite militias that had infiltrated all levels of the police and other security forces and turned them into instruments of Shi’ite vengeance against their former Sunni oppressors.

The ministers were the last bricks on the façade that is the all-party national-unity government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Earlier in the year I had watched from close quarters as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad worked tirelessly to make that government possible, pleading, cajoling until all the political factions–Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular–agreed to get in the big tent together. Relieved, the Bush Administration announced that the participation of all groups, especially the recalcitrant Sunnis, would allow al-Maliki’s government to succeed where the U.S. military had failed, in bringing to heel both the Sunni insurgency and the rising might of the Shi’ite militias. Never mind that the Prime Minister was himself a Shi’ite partisan until his nomination–whereupon he sought to reinvent himself as a nonsectarian leader–and that his party had stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. An ornery figure, al-Maliki is a backroom politician plainly ill at ease in public; few Iraqis had even heard of him, and few are convinced that his rancorous all-party government can last the year, much less its full four-year term.

Already, U.S. officials are finding it hard to keep up the optimistic spin. Shi’ite and Sunni politicians may now sit together, but their mutual hostility is undiminished, undermining the government–and al-Maliki can only look on helplessly. A political lightweight and compromise candidate, the Prime Minister doesn’t have the clout to bash heads, much less deliver on his promises to pursue insurgents with “no mercy” and crush the militias “with an iron fist.” As the politicians continue to bicker, the big tent is looking shaky; there were calls last week for several ministers–including the Interior chief–to be replaced.

The failure of new political nostrums is driving Iraqi and U.S. officials to retry military remedies that have been thoroughly discredited: massive security rings around Baghdad, high-visibility troop presence in the streets and sweeping house-to-house searches. If Iraq has taught us anything in the past three years–and Lebanon in the past three weeks–it is that conventional military tactics don’t work in an asymmetrical conflict. Sheer numbers and firepower count for very little. Despite an ongoing 50,000-man, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation dubbed Operation Forward Together to flush Baghdad clean of nationalist insurgents, jihadist terrorists and sectarian militias, the capital is as dangerous as ever. If anything, the Shi’ite militias are getting more brazen; a few days after my return, they entered the largely Sunni neighborhood of al-Jihad and slaughtered at least 50 people, including several women and children. Eight days later, Sunni fighters attacked a market in Mahmoudiya, just south of the capital, and mowed down more than 50 Shi’ites. Increasingly, attacks are taking place in broad daylight, leaving Iraqis to wonder how their security forces can overlook large numbers of armed men moving through the streets.

The failure of Forward Together is a blow to the Bush Administration’s hopes of quickly scaling down the U.S. military presence. With some 7,200 American and coalition soldiers joining 42,500 Iraqis, the operation was meant to showcase the growing ability of Iraqi security forces to protect their citizens. The experiment was effectively declared a failure two weeks ago when Bush and al-Maliki announced in Washington that more U.S. troops would be sent to protect Baghdad. But will that work? Probably not. When the full might of the U.S. military has been brought to bear in an Iraqi city–think Fallujah, Tall ‘Afar, Samarra, al-Qaim–the enemy has simply melted away, taking its terrorist tactics to places that are inadequately defended. And when U.S. forces have eventually stood down, leaving the policing to Iraqis, the enemy has returned to the very places that had supposedly been cleaned up–at the cost of American blood. There is no reason to believe that a re-tinkered Operation Forward Together will be any more successful, especially since insurgents, terrorists and militias have had ample warning that more Americans are coming, giving them time to pack their rocket-propelled grenades and leave.

Nor has there been much progress on other security matters. The government’s claims that several Sunni insurgent groups have responded to offers of amnesty have yet to be proved; some Sunni leaders say those who have opened negotiations are fringe figures with little sway over the insurgency. As for the jihadis, they seem unhindered by Forward Together. The Sadr City market explosion proved that the lull following al-Zarqawi’s death was temporary. Suicide bombings have again become a daily headline. Many fit into a deadly new pattern: as crowds are drawn to the scene of the first explosion, a second device is detonated, doubling the toll. There was even a double bombing 100 yards from the main entrance of the Green Zone, the highly fortified enclave that houses the seat of the Iraqi government and the headquarters of the U.S. military. The twin blasts–one a car bomb, the other a suicide bomber–killed 16 people near some small shops where journalists emerging from the Green Zone on hot afternoons stop to buy cold sodas. Although the Green Zone is one of the most protected places in Iraq, the entrance known as Checkpoint 3 is one of the most dangerous. Last summer I and several other TIME staff members were fortunate to be just out of harm’s way when a suicide bomber struck a kebab stand near the shops. The blast took the bomber’s head clear off his body and sent it rolling down the road to Wisam’s feet. He kicked it away dismissively.

Powerless to stop the killing, al-Maliki’s government has also failed to improve the lot of the living. Crime continues to soar, especially the booming business of kidnapping for ransom. U.S. officials say as many as 40 Iraqis are kidnapped every day. Ransom demands range from thousands of dollars to millions; many victims are never heard from again. Services are a cruel joke. As summer temperatures climb to 120Ëš, there has been no perceptible improvement in electricity or the water supply. And at a time when people desperately need their gasoline-powered generators to operate ceiling fans and air conditioners, fuel has become scarce. The wait in a gas-station line can last all day. Last month the black-market rate for a liter of gas briefly reached $1–exactly 100 times the official price just before the war. My Iraqi colleagues are amused when I read them stories about Americans complaining of high gas prices.

High fuel prices have yielded one bonus: with more and more people keeping their cars at home, the roads are relatively free of traffic snarl-ups. It’s typical of Baghdad that when something seems to get better–whether traffic or the ride from the airport–it’s usually because something else has got much worse.

Amid this unremitting misery, Iraqis struggle for some semblance of normality. In Baghdad, the 9 p.m. curfew means that the traditional family outings of summer–an evening picnic on the banks of the Tigris, dinner at a kebab restaurant or a late-night drive to an ice cream parlor–are all out of the question. Visiting with friends and family is impossible unless you’re prepared to go early and stay overnight. It’s an especially frustrating time for children; although it’s the summer break, parents are reluctant to let kids out of the house. Danger hides everywhere. Last week several teenagers were among 11 people killed and 14 hurt when two bombs went off at a soccer field in the Shi’ite district of Amil. Al-Shaheen, our bureau manager, has three children going stir-crazy at home. “They feel imprisoned,” he says. “For entertainment, they get on my wife’s nerves during the day and on mine at night.”

The only available escapism is via TV. The one post-Saddam freedom Iraqis can unreservedly enjoy is access to satellite television–Lebanese music videos, Egyptian soaps, the Oprah Winfrey Show (with Arabic subtitles), sports. The soccer World Cup was a welcome distraction. Since Iraq didn’t qualify, people invested their emotions in foreign teams, like Brazil and Italy. When the Italians won the tournament, it was our driver Wisam–not our Milanese photographer, Franco Pagetti–who had to be restrained from shooting an AK-47 into the air, the traditional Arab celebration. But even the enjoyment of a faraway sporting event can be poisoned by sectarian suspicions: a Sunni neighbor asked me, with a knowing smirk, whether our Shi’ite staff members had supported the Iranian team. When I said no, he was surprised. Many Sunnis believe that Shi’ite sympathies–and not just in sporting matters–lie with Iraq’s ancient enemy to the east. “In Najaf and Basra, the Shi’ites were praying for Iran to win,” he said disdainfully. “What do you expect from these people?” When I asked him if he had supported the two teams from Sunni-majority countries in the tournament, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, he changed the subject.

Fear of kidnapping is pervasive. To hide their wealth, many Iraqis choose to live well below their means. While on R. and R. in London, I met Hassan, a Baghdad businessman (he asked that his full name be concealed for his protection) who said he had “made millions” since the fall of Saddam, importing consumer electronics like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners. But his modest single-story home in the middle-class Yarmuk neighborhood still looks as it did when he inherited it from his father, an army captain. “I won’t even put on a fresh coat of paint because that would arouse suspicions,” he said. He drives around Baghdad in a beat-up Japanese car “even though I can afford a top-of-the-line Mercedes.” Only when he’s abroad does he live large, booking suites in the best hotels, buying expensive suits that he leaves with business associates and renting–yes–a top-of-the-line Mercedes. “If I live like this in Baghdad, there will be a competition among the kidnappers to take me.”

Hassan’s business interests keep him coming back. Yet for many Baghdad residents, the only hope for a decent life is to escape altogether. Since the school year ended in June, thousands of families have been heading to safer parts of the country, like the Kurdish north, where an economic boom carries the promise of jobs. Those who can afford it are going abroad, mainly to Syria and Jordan. “The middle class is evaporating,” says Iyad Allawi, who served as Iraq’s interim Prime Minister in 2004 and part of ’05. “Every Middle Eastern country I go to, they tell me immigration from Iraq is rising fast.”

Mahmud, my Iraqi colleague who fled Amariyah, has sent his wife and four kids to Amman. Whether they will return when schools reopen will depend on the security situation. Mahmud is not optimistic. “I should have made them pack winter clothes,” he says.

Sunnis like Mahmud now feel vulnerable in Baghdad, which for centuries was the citadel from which they lorded it over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. For the first three years after Saddam’s fall, much of the violence in and around the capital was committed against Shi’ites by Sunni insurgents and jihadis. But since the beginning of this year, Shi’ite death squads–widely believed to emanate from militias like the Mahdi Army and the Iran-trained Badr Organization–have become the main practitioners of terrorist violence. Each side has its signature style of murder. When Iraqis hear news of car bombings or suicide bombers, they don’t need to be told that Sunni jihadis were involved; when bodies bearing signs of gruesome torture (like the use of electric drills) turn up in a garbage dump or in the sewers, it’s assumed Shi’ite militias were responsible.

What makes the militias especially dangerous is the impunity with which they act. Since many policemen and soldiers are their former comrades-in-arms, militiamen are often allowed to roam unchecked. They are routinely accused of conducting “joint operations”–a euphemism for murderous rampages that police watch or even join. Sometimes police are accused of moonlighting as militiamen, using official vehicles and weapons. A three-car convoy belonging to Sunni M.P. Tayseer al-Mashhadani was stopped last month by 30 gunmen in a Shi’ite suburb. Al-Mashhadani and seven bodyguards were bundled into unmarked cars and driven away. An eighth bodyguard escaped and reported that the abductors had police-issue weapons. Al-Mashhadani hasn’t been released. An even more audacious snatch came soon after: men in uniforms grabbed the chief of Iraq’s Olympic Committee and 30 other sports officials. (Ten have been released, but the chief remains in captivity.) Men in uniform snatched 26 men last week from two offices less than a mile from TIME’s house.

The government’s standard response to each new outrage is to deny that police were involved and instead finger “criminal gangs” wearing knockoff uniforms and using stolen weapons and vehicles. Occasionally, blame is directed at the militias but never by name. After all, the political groups that control the militias are key components of the Shi’ite coalition that has the most seats in parliament and that includes al-Maliki’s party. The only militia to feel the Prime Minister’s “iron fist” was the toothless Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a small, unarmed band of Iranian rebels dedicated to toppling the regime in Tehran; it had been confined to a single base outside Baghdad and was monitored by the U.S. Nobody had accused the Mujahedin-e-Khalq of any atrocities on Iraqi soil, and al-Maliki’s decision to evict the group smacked of tokenism. Sunni politicians seized on the eviction as proof that al-Maliki was doing Tehran’s bidding.

For Sunnis in Baghdad, the sight of policemen is cause for concern rather than reassurance. Traffic checkpoints are especially perilous. Recently three TIME staff members–brothers, all Sunni–were detained at a police checkpoint for five hours. They began to worry when a Shi’ite friend who had been riding with them was allowed to leave. When the men showed their media badges, issued by the U.S. military, the cops accused them of being American spies. “We’ll send you to the Interior Ministry,” a cop said, obviously enjoying their discomfort as he bundled them into the back of a pickup truck. “You may be released or jailed, or maybe somebody will use an electric drill on you.” In the end, the TIME men were able to talk their way out of captivity after the owner of a shop near the checkpoint vouched for them. “The police realized that if we disappeared, the shopkeeper might be able to identify them as the ones who captured us,” says one of the brothers. A few days later, one of the brothers had another close shave when he stopped in a busy neighborhood to buy black-market gas. A car bomb went off 50 yards away, destroying his car. Luckily, he had stepped out of the vehicle to negotiate with the seller; he got away with minor shrapnel wounds. One tiny shard ripped into his shirt pocket in a direct line to his heart. The shrapnel arrowed through a thick wad of Iraqi currency and some loose paper and was finally stopped by his plastic ID card. “At last, I can say money saved my life,” he jokes.

Almost every Sunni family I meet seems to have a horror story that starts with a policeman at a checkpoint asking for identification. It’s profiling, Iraqi style. The harassment ranges from getting insulting, sniggering comments (“Nice car. Where did you steal it?”) to being handcuffed, blindfolded and hauled off to prison or, worse, a torture chamber. The most vulnerable are those who have obviously Sunni names, such as Omar. I have interviewed more than a dozen Omars, including two of Mahmud’s nephews, who have endured varying degrees of persecution from police or militias. As a precaution, many Sunnis are buying fake ID cards with safe Shi’ite names.

Feeling the heat from the militias and security forces, Baghdad’s Sunnis know their best hope for protection lies in the Americans, the very occupying forces they have despised for toppling them from power. My meeting with a high-level commander of a Sunni insurgent group takes an unexpected turn when he angrily demands, “Where are the Americans? Why aren’t they protecting our people?” For two years, the man has boasted to me about his fighters’ operations against U.S. soldiers. Now he wants them as a shield from the marauding militias. It’s clear from his indignation that the irony escapes him.

The Bush Administration seems to be finally coming out of its state of denial about the danger of sectarianism. For months, officials and military brass have doggedly maintained that the Shi’ite-on-Sunni sectarian killings were one-offs, unlikely to spread across the community. That posture began to change when Shi’ite mobs went on a murderous spree in Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi’ite shrine in Samarra. By the time U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his latest visit to Baghdad last month, the assessment was more realistic. General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told Rumsfeld that Shi’ite death squads were catalyzing a surge in sectarian violence. And General John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate committee in Washington last week that if the sectarian violence continued to spiral, Iraq “could move toward civil war.”

But recognizing the problem isn’t the same as having a solution. The current military strategy isn’t succeeding, as evidenced by the continuing tit-for-tat sectarian killings. U.S. and Iraqi forces last month stormed some buildings in the Mahdi Army’s stronghold of Sadr City, killing several fighters and arresting a top commander. But the anticipated knockout punch was never delivered. Al-Maliki, says a senior Iraqi government official, “doesn’t want a war against Muqtada al-Sadr because it would open him up to charges of killing his fellow Shi’ites–like what Allawi faced.” After Allawi gave the green light for U.S. forces to attack the Mahdi Army in 2004, he became a political pariah to Shi’ites. And al-Maliki is loath to antagonize al-Sadr after working hard to win his endorsement of the national-unity government.

For Sunnis, the failure to smash the Mahdi Army is not so much an indictment of al-Maliki as proof of a U.S. double standard. Salam al-Zaubai, a Sunni and one of al-Maliki’s two Deputy Prime Ministers, complains that U.S. forces treat the militias with kid gloves. “When they attacked the Sunni resistance, they flattened entire cities, like Fallujah,” he says. “But when it comes to Sadr City, their approach is different. Why?” For their part, residents of Sadr City ask why the U.S. is attacking the militias–seen as Robin Hood figures–when they should be looking for the Sunni terrorists who bombed the market.

Amid all the cursing and complaining, there’s an unexpected benefit for the U.S. military: the proliferating investigations into the killing of civilians by American troops are being forgotten. In our previous meeting two months ago, the insurgent leader had been cursing the Marines accused in the massacre of innocent civilians in Haditha. Since then, the accumulation of atrocities by Iraq’s militias has altered his perspective. “Haditha was nothing compared to what the militias are doing,” he says.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Al-Maliki. The Prime Minister has the near impossible task of repairing the damage wrought by three years’ worth of poorly considered policies and half-measures, most of them instituted by U.S. officials and generals who have long since gone home. “I’m tempted to get him a coffee mug with the slogan WORLD’S WORST JOB,” a Western diplomat told me in May, when al-Maliki was sworn in. “They’ve just handed him a toothbrush and told him to clean up the mountain of a mess left by [former U.S. administrator] Paul Bremer, Allawi and [former Prime Minister Ibrahim] al-Jaafari.”

Al-Maliki is getting very little help from other Iraqi leaders. The national-unity government is anything but unified. Shi’ite and Sunni ministers routinely contradict one another. It’s hard to get consensus even among his fellow Shi’ites. His offer of amnesty for Sunni insurgents was compromised when a powerful Shi’ite leader publicly disagreed about who should be pardoned. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said insurgents who had killed U.S. service personnel should be pardoned, directly contradicting al-Maliki’s promise that those with American blood on their hands would not qualify for amnesty. Al-Maliki’s plan was also criticized by al-Sadr. It’s probably no coincidence that al-Hakim and al-Sadr control the two largest armed Shi’ite militias, the Badr Organization and Mahdi Army, respectively.

While al-Maliki at least tries to present himself as a unifying figure, railing against Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias, many of his partners in the government are blatantly sectarian. Political leaders express outrage over the atrocities committed against their own sect but won’t acknowledge that the other side, too, is bleeding. They often dismiss those wounds as self-inflicted. After the bombing of the Samarra shrine, many Sunni leaders told me the blast was the work of Shi’ite agents provocateurs working in concert with Iranian intelligence operatives. Likewise, Mahdi Army commanders routinely accuse Sunni insurgents of committing atrocities against their own kind and then blaming the Shi’ites.

A typical encounter was my interview with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the seniormost Sunni in the Iraqi government. We met in his chintz-laden Green Zone office on the day of the al-Jihad murders. Many of the victims had been dragged out of their homes and shot dead in the street. As usual, the finger of blame pointed to the Mahdi Army. After al-Hashimi had fulminated about the slaughter of his fellow Sunnis, I asked whether the murdering militiamen might have been seeking revenge for the previous week’s bombing of the market in Sadr City. Al-Hashimi’s response was to claim that militiamen had planted the bomb, deliberately killing their fellow Shi’ites in order to justify revenge killings of Sunnis. “They were able to attack Sunni mosques within an hour of the market bomb,” he said. “This has to have been premeditated.”

Such bizarre logic quickly becomes received wisdom in a society in which even the highest officials in the land propagate outlandish conspiracy theories. The speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, announced at a press conference in Bahrain that “an entire Israeli brigade has entered Iraq … trying to infiltrate various parties.” That phantom force, he continued, is “camped at Babylon, whose destruction signifies the survival of the state of Israel in their holy books.”

The few secular politicians with any name recognition, like Allawi, have become marginalized, their voices drowned by the sectarian din. In two general elections, Allawi has failed to get more than 14% of the vote, and the flight of middle-class Iraqis is eroding his natural constituency. He bemoans the growing power of sectarian forces but can only watch in despair. In private conversations even politicians with no pretensions of secularism occasionally wish for a unifying leader. Some months ago, Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and I chatted about the kind of leadership it would take to pull Iraq back from the brink. We agreed that there were no giants on the political landscape, and he shook his head dolefully. “Not only that,” he said, sighing, “but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge.” Politicians, he said, have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road. Al-Mutlak returned to that theme in a recent interview with a local paper, saying the country needed “an Iraqi Mandela.”

Alas, statesmen can’t be wished into existence. In 31/2 years of covering Iraq, I have not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests. Never mind a Mandela; there’s not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan President has more credibility with his people than any Iraqi politician can honestly claim. In the absence of statesmen, I fear the sectarian furies that have been unleashed in Iraq will hack away at the last vestiges of sense and decency and drag the country into a final fight to the death.

Green Zoners are still hoping against hope it doesn’t come to that. Pairing familiar words in odd new ways, Ambassador Khalilzad recently told a Washington audience that Americans need to be “tactically patient” and “strategically optimistic” about Iraq’s future. On his first official visit to Britain and the U.S. two weeks ago, al-Maliki also told the Blair and Bush administrations what they wanted to hear: that a civil war could be averted.

But at least the Prime Minister has stopped trying to spin his own people. A few days before he left for Britain and the U.S., a desperate al-Maliki gave a televised speech to his parliament, pleading with his fellow politicians to set aside their differences. Looking like a man at his wit’s end, he warned that national reconciliation was one “last chance” to avert a civil war: “If it fails, I don’t know what the destiny of Iraq will be.” For a second, I thought I recognized the expression on his face. It’s the one I had seen on the faces of my fellow passengers on the flight into Baghdad–that mixture of fear and resignation, just before the descent into hell.

To submit questions to Aparisim Ghosh about life in Baghdad, visit time.com

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