Under siege: what the surge really means in Baghdad

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A city divided by high concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints; armoured columns moving through deserted evening streets lit by the glow of searchlights and emptied by official curfew and fear. This is Baghdad, seven months into the surge, and George Bush's last throw of the dice in Iraq.

On the surface, the Iraqi capital is less overtly violent than it used to be. The number of car bombings have fallen to "only" 23 a month from 42 in the same period last year, there are fewer sounds of explosions and gunfire than in the past, and there is, generally, less tension. And some of that must be due to the presence of more troops.

But for many Iraqis, the Americans have turned their land into a prison. The barriers, which have turned Baghdad into a series of ghettos, are meant to keep the bombers out, but they also keep residents penned in. People may feel safer inside their neighbourhoods, but are more wary of venturing outside them. A short journey across the city can take hours with roads blocked off and numerous checkpoints, discouraging people from visiting relations and friends and reinforcing the sense of isolation.

Commerce, which the Americans are so keen to re-establish, now requires traders to hire different drivers for different areas, although one form of business which thrives is the levying of unofficial "taxes" by armed groups operating with little or no interference from the security forces. At first the Americans welcomed the vigilante groups, calling them "guardians", but this has been tempered by tales of extortion.

Yesterday at a regional conference in Baghdad, attended by Iran and Syria, Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, insisted his government has made progress "in all directions".

The intense security around the conference created a gridlock in Baghdad with people striving to do their daily shopping before the evening curfew. Coming out of a store in the Karada district, Mariam al-Nasari viewed the situation with despair. "Nothing has been achieved," she said. "Why are they having foreign leaders here in their big cars when they should be doing something for the people of this country. They say things are getting safer, but I do not think so. You have a few days of little happening and then a big bomb. There are other problems, schools are shut, we cannot get to the hospitals. I have to go home now, I do not have the time to do all I need to do, we are always being delayed by the walls."

The walls, being put up by American contractors at a record speed, are formalising the break up of Baghdad. The city where Sunni, Shia and Christians once lived in comparative social amity – although not the same access to political power – is now so divided along sectarian lines that it may be impossible ever to reunify it.

Shia fighters have driven out Sunni families from areas such as Huriya, Shaab and Shalla. The Sunnis, in turn, have done the same to the Shias in places such as Khradrah, Amil and Jamiya. The properties are the source of more funding for the militias who organise their rentals. The Mehdi Army, led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has been in the forefront of this ethnic cleansing, having to do little apart from put red markings on Sunni homes they want, a message the owners seldom argue with.

Residents seeing their neighbours being driven out are too afraid to do anything. At Huriya, which has lost all its Sunni households, Hakim al-Karim, a 42-year-old computer software designer, said "We know a man who was killed because he was a Sunni and they wanted his house. No one did anything, but do not blame us, there is nothing we could do. If they find out they will kill you. Who are you going to go to? The Americans? They are not going to stay in my street to protect my family. The police? You don't even know who they really work for."

The purge of the neighbourhoods have helped bring down the number of violent deaths, driving people out means there are fewer sectarian targets left for the militias to kill.

In Amariya, now a wholly Sunni area, 59-year-old Farah Husseini wanted to talk about how much she missed her grandchildren. "They are in Khadra, I want to go there, but my husband says it is too dangerous, we cannot move around the city now and they cannot come here either."

Negotiating the militia checkpoints continues to be a lottery despite American claims to have cracked down on them. Omar Rashid, who regularly travels to Amman by road from Baghdad said: "The checkpoints in the west of Baghdad to the Jordanian border are controlled by Sunnis. They ask your name and if it is Ali there are problems because Ali is a Shia name. But then there are Sunnis also called Ali. So then they ask you about your tribe. It can be dangerous to get the answers wrong."