Iraq is less violent than a year ago, but the country is still the most dangerous in the world. So it was no surprise to anyone in Baghdad, where people have long dreaded a renewal of al-Qa'ida's savage bombing campaign directed at Shia civilians, that there should be suicide attacks on two bird markets, killing 92 people on Friday.
For all President George Bush's claims of progress, cited in his final State of the Union address last week, Baghdad looks like a city out of the Middle Ages, divided into hostile townships. Districts have been turned into fortresses, encircled by walls made out of concrete slabs. Police and soldiers check all identities at the entrances and exits.
"People say things are better than they were," says Zainab Jafar, a well-educated Shia woman, "but what they mean is that they are better than the bloodbath of 2006. The situation is still terrible."
There are checkpoints everywhere. I counted 27 on the road from central Baghdad to Fallujah, 30 miles west of the capital. These guard posts provide protection, but they are also a threat because there are so many of them that it is easy for kidnappers, criminals and militiamen to set up their own checkpoints in order to select likely victims.
In this case I was not too worried, because my driver was a policeman from the area and there were another four well-armed police in a car behind. We turned up a track, guided by militiamen, to the hidden headquarters of Abu Marouf, a former insurgent against the Americans who has changed sides and now leads 13,000 men against al-Qa'ida.
Abu Marouf is an angry man, complaining that if he and his men do not get long-term jobs in the Iraqi security forces in three months, then they will stop suppressing al-Qa'ida, and perhaps reach a deal with them. "If the Americans think they can use us to get rid of al-Qa'ida and then push us to one side, they are mistaken," he says. He threatens not only to stop action against al-Qa'ida, but to ally himself to them again. I do not quite believe this because he also says that al-Qa'ida cut off his brother's head with an old-fashioned razor, and 450 members of his tribe, the Zubai, have been killed by them.
The rain is sleeting down and we have to skirt muddy puddles to get back to the car. We go to Fallujah, sealed off from the outside world since it was stormed by the US Marines in November 2004. We drive around an enormous queue of people waiting at the final checkpoint, and only get into the city because the chief of police, Colonel Feisal, another brother of Abu Marouf, vouches for us and has sent an escort.
People in Fallujah say, as they do in Baghdad, that life is getting better, by which they mean that the chances of staying alive have risen sharply in the past six months, because al-Qa'ida has been eliminated or driven underground.
Asked what he was doing immediately before becoming chief of police, Colonel Feisal replies engagingly: "I was fighting against the Americans." He volunteers that the worst day of his life was when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.
This is a very different picture of Iraq from the one President Bush gave to Congress in his State of the Union address, just after I left Fallujah. He claimed that "more than 80,000 Iraqi citizens ... are fighting terrorism", but did not mention that most of them are the "terrorists" of yesterday who have switched sides. They did so partly because they hated al-Qa'ida, but also because they could see that Iraq's Shia majority had gained control of most of the government and most of Baghdad.
Back in the capital, every day brings shootings and bombings, though no longer on the industrial scale of a year ago. Kassim Ahmed, a Sunni friend from west Baghdad, had told me a week earlier that life was better in his district of al-Khudat. Now he says he heard a loud explosion and gunfire lasting 20 minutes the night before. In the morning, he learned that somebody had attacked an army checkpoint nearby and killed two soldiers, wounded two others and taken prisoner a lieutenant whom they later killed.
He has another story that illustrates the dangers of living in Baghdad, despite the supposed success of the "surge". His cousin, who works in the dental faculty of Baghdad University, had come home shocked the previous day because the dean, her boss, had just been killed as he drove to his house at 3pm. Nobody admitted to seeing the killers, but he had been shot three times in the head and once in the shoulder.
He was a member of the Shia religious party al-Dawa, and colleagues say privately he was given his job because of his political actions. Could better-qualified, frustrated professional rivals have sent assassins to kill him? Alternatively, kidnappers might have tried to drag the dean from his car, and shot him when he resisted.
Baghdad was paralysed by fear a year ago, and, to a great extent, it still is. Some new shops have opened, but this is misleading as a sign of progress, because they are in the heart of Sunni or Shia districts. Nobody wants to move far from their own home to shop.
The east side of Baghdad is safer than the west because it is overwhelmingly Shia, and some shops stay open in the evening. In the west, where there are more Sunnis, I drove three or four miles on Wednesday night at 8pm and saw only three cars, aside from military vehicles, along the way.
The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, are cautious about claiming that America is winning. But on Thursday I saw a US television commentator refer first to President Bush's "victory" in Iraq and then, correcting herself, say apologetically: "I mean his success."
A dozen hours later, suicide bombers from al-Qa'ida had blown themselves up in the bird markets with the aim of restarting sectarian war between Sunnis and Shias, something that people in Baghdad fear more than anything else. If al-Qa'ida accomplishes that aim, not even the most blinkered American analyst would dare to talk of "success", let alone "victory".Reuse content