Patrick Cockburn: Baghdad life is improving, but it's far from safe

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The Independent Online

Security in Baghdad is better than the slaughter of two or three years ago, but this still leaves it as perhaps the most dangerous city in the world after Mogadishu. It is certainly worse than Kabul.

The last big bombs were on 19 August – they exploded outside the Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry, killing at least 95 people and wounding 536. But suicide bombings on this scale could happen again at any moment because, for all the checkpoints and searches, they are extremely difficult to stop.

People living in Baghdad sometimes laud the improvement in security, but this reflects how bad things were at the height of the sectarian civil war in 2006-07 when some months saw 3,000 people murdered, mostly in the greater Baghdad area.

It is true that there is more traffic at night, particularly on the east bank of the Tigris. A few more restaurants are open. Shops stay open later. Western media stories about how Baghdad is coming back to life should be taken with a pinch of salt. Television correspondents apparently ambling down a street usually have several armed bodyguards with their cameraman. The Iraqi government's own optimistic view is coloured by the fact that its members never move without heavy security details. The same is true of diplomats in the Green Zone.

Optimism on security exuded by Iraqi officials and US or British officials alike is misleading. A better indicator is the Foreign Office's travel advice which firmly warns against any travel "to Baghdad and its surrounding area, the provinces of Basra, Maysan, Al Anbar, Salah Ad Din, Diyala, Wasit, Babil, Ninawa and At-Tamim ['Kirkuk Province']". It warns: "There is a high threat of terrorism throughout Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents conduct frequent and widespread lethal attacks on a wide range of targets." It adds that there is a serious risk of kidnapping.

Moving around Baghdad is safer, but often very slow because of the numerous checkpoints and blast walls. Traffic jams are everywhere. There are chokepoints near the Green Zone that it is wise to avoid because government convoys are often targeted there. Attacks on senior officials show that insurgents still have an intelligence network and the ability to strike where they want. People resident in Baghdad are pleased that their life has got a little bit better, but they fear that the bloodbath they have known might return in the future. Probably they are wrong, but their sense of insecurity is understandable.