As American tanks rumbled into Baghdad three years ago, Omar al-Damaluji took to the streets of the bomb-battered city with an old Canon camera and a singular mission.
An amateur photographer and civil engineering professor at Baghdad University, Damaluji crisscrossed the capital, ducking into doorways during firefights and snapping 15 rolls of film in two weeks. He knew his beloved Baghdad would never be the same, he recalled, and he wanted to document the transformation.
"This is how it looked. This is how my city looked," he said as he sat before a computer in his well-appointed study one recent afternoon, armed men manning a makeshift checkpoint on the quiet street outside. He clicked through before-and-after photographs of a government ministry, first shown with pristine white walls and a tidy yard, then with smoke billowing from a fractured roof.
"It was never a paradise," Damaluji, now 50, said with a sigh. "But Baghdad has become a wretched place."
Three years after U.S. forces swept Saddam Hussein's government from power, car bombings and political assassination are near-daily occurrences. Neighborhoods, now torn along sectarian lines, are plagued by increasingly violent militias and dysfunctional public services, and occupied by tens of thousands of foreign troops. Some analysts are beginning to compare Baghdad with another Middle Eastern capital that was synonymous with anarchy and bloodshed in the 1970s and '80s.
"In Beirut when the civil war began, you had electricity 24 hours a day and running water all the time, and the air conditioning was working, and so were the elevators," said Francois Heisbourg, a French military analyst. "In the case of Baghdad, it looks like Beirut after 10 years of civil war."
Focus on Baghdad
U.S. officials here have predicted that 2006 will mark the battle for Baghdad, and both insurgent attacks and the effort to stop them are increasingly focused on this city of about 7 million people. Until the situation in the capital is normalized, they say, the United States will not be able to argue that it has brought peace and stability to Iraq.
"As Baghdad goes, so goes the rest of the country," said Michael P. Fallon, head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Iraq reconstruction programs. "We are now consciously bumping up our efforts in the Baghdad area."
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said that "if you think like the enemy," the issues would be: "Where is the center of gravity for the people of Iraq? Where do I focus my effort? Where are my attacks going to have the most significant effects worldwide? So he's focused on Baghdad."
Referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, Lynch said, "We're convinced that Zarqawi now is zooming in on Baghdad." And so is the United States. "There is indeed a focused effort on Baghdad, both for security and improvement of the basic conditions in Baghdad, so that by the end of 2006 you see a markedly different city," Lynch said.
When U.S. troops arrived here on April 9, 2003, they found a giddy and apprehensive capital and a weary populace that appeared willing to give them a chance. U.S. officials predicted that American troops would be welcomed as liberators and that the transfer of authority to new Iraqi leaders would be quick. Instead, a powerful anti-U.S. insurgency took root, led in part by homegrown backers of Hussein and in part by foreign fighters loyal to Zarqawi.
Baghdad has borne the brunt of the bloodshed. According to a January tally by Iraq Body Count, a British antiwar group, more than 20,000 people have been killed in Baghdad since the March 2003 invasion, accounting for almost 60 percent of the group's estimate of civilian deaths throughout Iraq. Roughly a quarter of the 2,350 U.S. military deaths in Iraq have occurred in the capital.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been more than 2,500 violent incidents in Baghdad, according to statistics supplied by the U.S. military. They include more than 900 roadside bombings -- about 10 per day -- at least 84 car bombs, 70 cases of people firing rocket-propelled grenades, 55 drive-by shootings, hundreds of small-arms attacks and political and sectarian assassinations, and dozens of mortar, grenade and sniper attacks.
"Weapons are spread in huge quantities among people. Strangers come from other areas to shoot and kill," said Ahmed Salah, 28, a lawyer in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiyah. "To protect ourselves, people of our neighborhood started guarding the areas at night."
Hopes on Iraqi police
In the most visible sign of the breakdown in law and order, unmarked cars with plainclothes gunmen hanging out the windows are commonplace. Members of private Western security companies, with no authority but their guns, commandeer entire roads, threatening to fire on anyone who approaches. Sectarian and ethnic militias control large neighborhoods, sometimes dressed in uniforms of the country's security forces. Gunfire routinely breaks the silence; virtually no one is held accountable when someone is shot. On Saturday, an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was scheduled.
U.S. military officials say that foreign fighters and terrorists, particularly those tied to Zarqawi, are the source of most of the violence in Baghdad. They contend that his strategy of targeting Shiite Muslim civilians to try to precipitate a civil war is backfiring and that the eventual formation of a new national unity government with Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni Arab political parties will diminish his disruptive power. Furthermore, the U.S. military is providing extensive training and mentoring to thousands of Iraqi policemen, hoping they will fill the city's security vacuum and gain the confidence of the people, who otherwise will turn to militias to protect them.
"This is really, in the grand scheme of things, what needs to happen here," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, who oversees training of the Iraqi police. Once it does, he said, foreign investment will pick up, creating jobs for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men in Baghdad who are potential recruits for al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The most treacherous parts of Baghdad are the south and west, Sunni Arab enclaves where sympathy for the insurgency is strong. The U.S. commander in western Baghdad, Col. Jeffrey Snow, of the Army's 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, said violence has ebbed and flowed during his eight months in Iraq. Lately, he said, Shiite militias have intensified attacks against Sunni civilians and armed groups.
But like many American commanders, Snow says security in his area of operation is not as bad as perceived. "A lot of folks would like to say we're on the verge of civil war, but that is not consistent with my opinion," he said in a recent interview. Iraq's security forces are making steady progress, he said, and Muslim clerics in his area, with whom he maintains close relations, have consistently called for calm.
In response to what he described as a population that by and large still feels uneasy, Snow said, his unit has begun conducting weekly and sometimes daily public opinion surveys. Among the standard form's 10 questions: "In what area do you think the security forces should focus its efforts to provide better security?" And "Do you know where the terrorists are in this area? If yes, where?"
While acknowledging that many people might not tell him the truth, Snow said the responses allow him to focus attention where it is needed most. "We have seen an improvement in people's perceptions of their own security since we began doing this," he said.
Public service standstill
But while many Baghdad residents say security is the most important issue to be addressed, other concerns are not far behind. Virtually all public services -- particularly water, sewerage and electricity -- are functioning at levels worse than before the war, despite billions of dollars spent on reconstruction. Gasoline lines stretch for miles, despite the country's vast oil reserves. The city is a maze of no-go zones, with miles of 15-foot-high concrete barriers and dozens of streets that are closed by sandbags, gates, Jersey barriers and armed guards.
"Statistics show that billions have been spent on Baghdad, but most of the money goes into small, day-to-day projects that will have no impact, and we consider it lost," Mayor Sabir al-Isawi said in an interview at his spacious office in Baghdad's city hall, known as Amanat. He said that about 10 city employees are killed each week, and that trash collection and other public services cannot be provided in some neighborhoods.
"These projects leave a bad impression about Americans," he said.
Many independent analysts here say they do not believe that Baghdad or Iraq has descended into the kind of full-blown civil war in which sectarian militias engage in gun battles and artillery duels and residents pack up and move in massive numbers. The key to avoiding such a scenario, the analysts said, will be the ability of Iraq's newly formed and largely untested army not to fracture along sectarian lines and to remain loyal to the nation rather than to individual factions.
"We have a low-level civil war that could spin further out of control and escalate, with militias directly attacking each other with heavy weapons and the army fracturing along ethnic lines and joining the fray," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the nongovernmental International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan.
"Despite the bad security situation, I am optimistic," said Ali Hussein, 46, who lives in the Amiriyah neighborhood in western Baghdad. Salaries have gone up since the U.S. invasion, he said, and the Iraqi army is improving. "Everything comes gradually. People should know that what is happening is not easy. It takes time."
Special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.