BAGHDAD - Government officials in Baghdad make two contradictory points about the state of Iraq. On one hand, they say the government is much stronger, having largely crushed the Sunni insurgents last year and severely weakened the Mahdi Army Shia militia in the past six months. They claim journalists like myself do not give them enough credit for these successes. But when I suggest to them that if the government is really so strong, maybe it can do without American support, they immediately look worried. "We cannot really stand on our own," one official told me. "What would happen if there was a Mahdi Army uprising in Basra, or an army brigade mutinied in Anbar, or the Kurds unilaterally moved to annex Kirkuk?"
In theory, the Iraqi state is becoming strong again. It has security forces numbering a half-million men. Its oil revenues might touch $150 billion next year. It has apparently extended its authority to Basra, Sadr City and Amara province. Sunni Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which had previously hoped that the Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad was only a passing phase, accept that it is here to stay and are talking of sending ambassadors and reopening their embassies.
But nobody here knows whether this rebirth of the Iraqi state machine is a mirage. The supposed military victories against the Mahdi Army in the first half of the year would not have happened without the support of American firepower. The Iraqi army itself, though more confident than before, wonders what would happen if Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, were to end his ceasefire or the Iranians were to reverse their support for the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Two powerful tribal sheiks from Sadr City told me firmly that the Mahdi Army was on the run. But when I asked if they would oppose it in public, they replied: "Certainly not. We would be shot down next time when we went to the mosque."
On his visit to Baghdad Barack Obama received the usual encouraging accounts from American generals and Iraqi government officials about how far security has improved and how normality is returning to Iraq. But in the great majority of cases, he will be speaking to people who do not personally set foot in the streets of the Iraqi capital without an armed escort. In one sense Iraq is "better," but the improvement is only in contrast to the previous bloodbath. In June, 554 Iraqi civilians and security were killed, compared with 1,642 a year earlier. The sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, which was at its height between the end of 2005 and the first half of 2007, has ebbed. This is not so much because of the Surge, but because there is nobody left to kill. Baghdad has become a largely Shia city. There are few mixed areas remaining.
It is safer driving around Baghdad, but the city is divided up into fortified sectarian ghettoes. Shia and Sunni do not visit each other's districts if they can help it. Above all, the 4 million Iraqis who have fled to Jordan or Syria or moved inside the country are not going back to their homes. When a Shia family went to look at their old house in the al-Mekanik neighborhood in Dora in south Baghdad, which had been taken over by Sunnis, the husband and wife were immediately killed and their driver's headless body was found lying in the street next morning. Visitors to Baghdad like Obama may not quite understand what Iraqis mean by "improved security," because the outside world never fully took on board the extent of the previous slaughter.
For instance, in east Baghdad there is a large wholesale market for spare car parts called al-Siniq, which used to supply the whole city. But in 2006 the wholly Shia police commandos raided the market and arrested seventy-seven people, released the Shia and killed some forty Sunnis. Until very recently no Sunni would go back, but they are now nervously venturing to al-Siniq once again. For Baghdad this is progress, but it still leaves the city as the most dangerous place in the world.
Outside the Green Zone, Iraqis did not pay great attention to the Obama visit, any more than they did to the six visits of John McCain over the past few years. These highly restricted tours have little to do with their daily lives. The main topic of conversation in Baghdad this summer is not about the American presidential election, but the lack of electricity. The Mesopotamian plain is one of the hottest places on earth, and this year there is less electricity than ever to power air conditioning or air coolers. It is also more difficult to get visas to visit Syria and spend the sweltering summer months in the cooler climate of Damascus. Food is expensive, and almost none of it is grown in Iraq. Watermelons are imported from Iran and apples and tomatoes from the Jordan Valley. There are signs that fundamentalist Islamic gunmen no longer control the streets: shops selling alcohol are reopening, as are hair salons, both of which closed in early 2007. But most Iraqis do not drink alcohol, and they have their hair cut at home.
The Iraqi government knows that its claims of success that it is making to Obama are overstated. It has become used to being defended by American troops and fears what would happen to it without them. But in fact Obama could give the Iraqi government no better gift than a timetable for withdrawal, because so long as the US occupation continues, the Iraqi government will be deemed illegitimate by its own people.
© 2008 The Nation