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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Iraqis untouched by US surge
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

"I haven't left my home in two months," says Kulsoom, a medical student who lives in east Baghdad with her family.

An Iraqi woman waits as US soldiers search her home in Baghdad
The US has beefed up its forces in Iraq by 30,000 soldiers

Not to see friends or relatives, not to go shopping, not to go to college for the extra training she would like before the new academic year begins.

She has a lot of catching up to do. Kulsoom missed half her classes last year because of bombs, shootings and other threats which prevented either her or her teachers from reaching class.

Only a few family members ever go out, for daily essentials. Otherwise they stay at home, day after day.

But they would agree with Gen Petraeus that there has been a drop in violence since the American troop surge.

"There are fewer attacks," says Kulsoom. "Now it is only four or five killed a day in our area. It used to be 20 or 30."

"But we are still afraid. Nothing has really changed."

Spoiling for a fight

This is typical of what you hear from many Baghdad residents, nine months since President George W Bush announced his last-ditch bid to try to turn Iraq round.

I am the optimistic one in my family but I have to admit that nothing has changed
Baghdad student

But that does not mean people feel any safer. It does not mean they believe the US troop surge has yet led to any lasting change that is bringing the fighting to an end.

More concrete barriers divide the city, more checkpoints. But they have only dampened the violence, not addressed its causes, people say.

Even if most Iraqis are exhausted by conflict, the many factions are not and the struggle for power goes on in a society which Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, acknowledged was still deeply "traumatised" by years under Saddam Hussein's brutal rule.

Sunni groups who have allied themselves with the Americans in the former al-Qaeda stronghold of Anbar are not necessarily allies of the Baghdad government. Many Sunni tribesmen openly say it is a "government of Iran" controlled from Tehran.

The suspicion is returned by many in Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shia-dominated government, who are anxious about the growing strength of some of these Sunni groups.

There is no doubt that there has been a significant turnaround in Anbar, because of the tribal rebellion against al-Qaeda there. It is the one relative success the Americans can point to. But it is far from clear this will help bring wider peace and reconciliation.

Militia rule

There is little sign of this either along other ethnic, political and sectarian fault lines. Death squads still operate in Baghdad and many cities, even if at lower levels than last year.

Under Saddam, it was the mukhabarat [secret police] we were terrified of - now it is the Mehdi Army
But among Shia militias in southern Iraq, fighting has intensified this year.

Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army has continued to penetrate deeper into every aspect of life.

"Under Saddam, it was the mukhabarat [secret police] we were terrified of," says shopkeeper Ali. "Now it is the Mehdi Army. They are everywhere."

The only political progress since the surge is that the various boycotts of parliament have ended. But there is no sign that Iraq's politicians can now come together to agree on legislation such as sharing oil revenues or constitutional reform.

In their marbled villas, hidden behind the walls and razor wire of the Green Zone, Iraq's democratically elected politicians seem ever more out of touch.

Outside, people wrestle with the same problems.

"We only get two hours of electricity a day," says Kulsoom. "One in the morning, one in the evening."

The Americans send out constant press releases to journalists talking of new projects to improve the power system. But the situation is as bad as ever.

Even this lower level of violence is still shockingly high. Iraqis still get kidnapped every day.

Gen Petraeus told Congress that the number of car bombs was down by half from the start of the year. But they are still running at a rate of three a day.

Leaving Iraq

With so little sign of permanent change, that is why so many people continue to leave Iraq - up to 20,000 a week heading to already overwhelmed Syria.

Kulsoom says 60 or 70 of her classmates have left in the past 18 months, many of her professors too.

One hopeful sign is that a majority of Iraqis remain committed to the idea of Iraq as a unified state - not one split between Shia, Sunnis, Kurds and other groups.

A poll for the BBC and ABC News released on the eve of the general's testimony bore this out.

But this is not enough to overcome the violence.

"I am the optimistic one in my family," says Kulsoom. "But I have to admit that nothing has changed."

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