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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 September 2007, 09:14 GMT 10:14 UK
Baghdad diary: Veneer of security
Andrew North
By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

CONCRETE BLAST WALLS

It is quieter in Baghdad at the moment. At times earlier this year and last, gunfire, mortars and explosions punctured the air every hour.

Iraqi women walk past security walls in the Karrada district of Baghdad
Concrete barriers and blast walls have become commonplace

Now we are counting the gaps in days - in our part of the capital at least.

In the past week or so, we have been to several areas where we have not ventured all year, such as the once-bustling markets on the eastern side of the River Tigris.

This is where hundreds of Iraqis - mostly Shia - have been killed week after week by massive suicide car bombs.

It became too risky for us to go there.

Concrete - as in many parts of Baghdad - has been the solution.

It has been used to divide up some neighbourhoods, while it encases markets in the city centre in the form of blast barriers.

It is different to six months ago - the proof is you can come here today
Kareem
Market trader

The protective walls have helped reduce the attacks and prompted many shops and stalls to re-open. For long periods, it has been a sea of shutters.

"It is different to six months ago," Kareem told me, perched beside a small wooden table spread with cheap watches.

We were in what is known as the Thieves' Market in the central Bab al-Sharji district.

"The proof is you can come here today. You couldn't do that before," he added.

He held up a watch with a Seiko logo. "Best quality," he assured me with a smile.

Market in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district
The protective walls have prompted many shops and stalls to re-open

But the atmosphere was nervous. Most shopkeepers and passers by would not talk to us. They watched uneasily as we filmed. Foreigners are a rare sight here - except for heavily-armed US soldiers.

A small, bespectacled man approached.

"What are you doing here?" he asked in good English.

I explained we were doing a report for the BBC.

"I would like to talk to you," he said, looking around. "But it's too dangerous."

Before I could say anything more, he was gone.

That anonymous man in the crowd, rather than the watch-seller, better reflects the mood right now.

Most Iraqis see only a veneer of better security - one that depends on endless concrete walls and thousands of checkpoints, many of them manned by security forces they still do not trust

Watching Gen David Petraeus's polished slide shows last week, it is possible for those outside Iraq to believe a corner has been turned.

Maybe it has. But from inside Iraq it is far too early to say so.

Most Iraqis see only a veneer of better security - one that depends on endless concrete walls and thousands of checkpoints, many of them manned by security forces they still do not trust.

But behind these walls, no-one is suing for peace.

The factions involved in Iraq's many conflicts are as far apart as ever.

And while the US occupation is blamed for creating the chaos, for more and more Sunnis the Americans are the only force that can protect them.

The aftermath of a bomb in Baghdad
The killing goes on, just more silently than before
Iraqi journalist

As one of my Iraqi colleagues says: "The killing goes on, just more silently than before."

People in many neighbourhoods still wake to find bodies dumped in their streets - most of them victims of sectarian death squads

The other night, one of our Iraqi staff collapsed and we took him to hospital.

There, he regained some of his strength, but doctors wanted to keep him in overnight.

He refused to stay though and insisted his friends take him back to the office.

He is a Sunni and the hospital has long been controlled by the Shia Mehdi Army militia.

That is still the reality of Baghdad - a city where people do not even feel safe in a hospital.

REACTION AND RESPONSIBILITY

Each new report from the US on strategy in Iraq - almost a weekly event now - sparks the same question from London for BBC correspondents reporting from here: what's the Iraqi reaction?

At the other end of the line, there is often surprise to hear there is not any.

A Baghdad resident watches television
Many Iraqis have not been staying abreast of events in Washington

Sometimes we find Iraqis have not even heard of the latest announcement.

While the US and much of the western world may obsess over policy in Iraq, Iraqis themselves pay less and less attention, even to last week's "surge" of reports and speeches. It is a debate from which they feel largely excluded.

"It doesn't matter what we think," said a teacher friend, who does try to follow the news from the US. "The Americans will do what they want."

It is hardly surprising, the way Iraq is discussed by both President George Bush and his political opponents.

The policy revolves around US security - "fighting terrorists in Iraq, so Americans are safe at home".

The Americans always try to pretend the responsibility for cleaning up this mess isn't theirs and tend to shift the blame onto Iraq, Iran and Syria for everything that goes wrong
Mahmoud Othman
Kurdish politician

The needs and hopes of Iraqis - for their own security, jobs, and functioning power, water and sewage systems - are rarely mentioned.

When Iraqis do get a mention, it is usually to be blamed for the failings of their politicians. That is how it looks from here.

There is no question that Iraq's new political class have not served their people well, but there is mounting anger that they are being landed with all the blame, not the US.

Or rather, that everyone but the Americans is getting the blame.

Veteran Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman voiced widespread feelings with a recent outburst.

Engineer working on a mass of electric power lines
Electricity shortages remain one of the biggest problems in Iraq

"The Americans always try to pretend the responsibility for cleaning up this mess isn't theirs and tend to shift the blame onto Iraq, Iran and Syria for everything that goes wrong," he said.

"They should stop this nonsense and admit that most of the accountability rests on their shoulders."

There are many Americans here who do feel a deep responsibility for trying to put Iraq back on its feet, but that is not what comes across.

During Gen Petraeus's and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's testimony last week, my Iraqi colleagues watched a congressman called Tom Lantos again warn Iraqi politicians that US patience is wearing thin.

He told them that "the free ride is over".


Previous Baghdad diaries:



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