Despatches: A tale of two Baghdads

An old friend in Baghdad just called me, one I had not spoken to for several months. An all-too-familiar feeling of guilt welled up inside me: a third member of his family had been killed, travelling through the city when a car bomb went off.

My friend lives in a western district of Baghdad ruled by Sunni militia. His youngest child, his son, is about to finish university, and my friend is determined to join the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis scattered across the Middle East when he does. I'd had this conversation with him before, but there was a bleakness and desperation in his voice this time. He spoke about what had happened to Iraq with a vehemence and desolation that shocked me.

He needed my help, he told me. Could I call someone, anyone, a news organisation, perhaps - anywhere he could get a job? "I'll go anywhere and work in any kind of job. I just have to leave," he said. "Please, do anything you can for me." I had already tried to do something, made inquiries. This was the point at which I knew that there was nothing I could do to help.

Having a personal connection with Iraqis, hearing their stories of day-to-day life, gives you a vivid image of the scale of the human and political catastrophe that British and American policy has brought to the country. My friend mentioned in passing how the Sunni militiamen erect roadblocks in the evenings in his area of Baghdad. Partly this is to show people how limited US military control of sections of the city has become. Partly it is to help the hunt for Shias.

Hani, another Iraqi friend, has lived in Britain for 35 years but goes back to Baghdad twice a year to help relatives. His grand-nieces and nephews are taken to primary school by at least two adults, sometimes more, because of the almost routine kidnappings of middle-class children for ransom. Death in the Iraqi capital is mundane, he says, and his family's experience puts a human face on the huge rise in numbers of people dying in Iraq. "In the first year after the invasion, one relative was badly wounded by a stray bullet," he told me. "Last year, I lost three close relatives. So far this year, I have lost five relatives, some through being caught in bomb blasts, others because they were kidnapped and murdered. Others were caught in gun battles."

I find it difficult, against such descriptions of life for ordinary people in Baghdad, to listen to politicians portraying events in Iraq in terms that stress the progress being made in building police and army units. They tell us how democratic governance is taking root in the country and how a better Iraq can be built simply by "staying the course", even when that course has been so bloody. The key to making sense of such descriptions is to bear in mind that they are aimed at a domestic political audience. They are not intended to reflect what is happening in Iraq, and they certainly bear no resemblance to the reports that military commanders and dip lomats send back to politicians in London and Washington. This is why so many of the leaked comments and memos from officials in Baghdad portray a very different reality from the one so often described by politicians.

It is surprising that two completely different versions of the situation in Iraq have been maintained for so long. But in the past fortnight, there have been signs that this may be coming to an end. The comments by the head of the British army, President Bush's long-overdue comparison of Iraq with Vietnam, and the sense of fear among Republicans at how Iraq will damage them in the midterm elections are symptomatic of this. At last, the reality experienced by Iraqis themselves may be about to come to the fore. When we realise that so many of the upbeat assessments of Iraq by British and American ministers over the past three years have been bogus, what a reckoning there will be.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: a nation under siege