Helicopter gunships circled overhead and checkpoints choked traffic in the streets, but the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, were in Baghdad yesterday to give upbeat accounts of improving security.
Mr Cheney said he sensed "phenomenal changes" and "dramatic" security gains since he last visited 10 months ago. "I am happy to say," said Mr McCain, "Americans are more and more understanding of the success of this strategy of the surge".
Contrary to these optimistic forecasts, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the Shia holy city of Kerbala yesterday, killing at least 40 people.
With their heavy security and meetings with Iraqis mostly confined to the Green Zone, it would scarcely have been evident to either American politician that the Iraqi capital is divided into hostile townships of Sunni and Shia. The top US commander General David Petraeus complained last week that security gains had not been matched "by sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation".
This is scarcely surprising. Paradoxically, it was largely because Sunni and Shia Iraqis had come to hate each other more than they did the Americans that the Sunni insurgents switched sides at the end of 2007. They formed al-Sahwa (the Awakening Councils) and allied themselves with their former American enemies.
They did so because of hostility to al-Qa'ida, but above all because the minority Sunni community was being overwhelmed by the Shia. The formation of the 80,000-strong al-Sahwa militia is the most important reason for the optimism of Mr Cheney and Mr McCain. Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, the brown-uniformed militiamen belonging to the movement search cars at the entrance and exit points to Sunni areas.
Mr McCain said yesterday that "al-Qa'ida are on the run, but they are not defeated". But in parts of Baghdad al-Sahwa is often al-Qa'ida in Iraq in a new guise rather than a reaction against it.
"Al-Qa'ida think they can become an official militia through al-Sahwa," said Ibrahim Mohammed Abdullah, 35, an al-Sahwa militiaman in the al-Khadra district that was formerly an al-Qa'ida stronghold. "They can gather information on the police commandos and tip off anybody who is going to be arrested."
Other al-Sahwa members confirm this. Saleh Jabar Mohsin, 21, a former student, explained the recent wave of assassinations of al-Sahwa members. "We know," he said, "that anybody from al-Sahwa who has been killed, was shot because he really was working against al-Qa'ida or other Islamic groups. A second reason might be that he had refused to play a dual role [working for both the Americans and al-Qa'ida]."
Sunni and Shia now each have their own rival security forces presided over by Americans. The growth of al-Sahwa under US auspices may have reduced violence, but has also made Iraq more divided.
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