Security measures come and go, they say, but the daily death rates continue to increase.

And if there is one word to describe the most enduring constant in addition to nearly daily car bombs, curfew would be it, most Iraqis agree.

Curfew hours in Baghdad last from 9pm till 5am every day and are extended on Fridays, the Muslim holy day.

But in addition to the government curfews and motor vehicular bans, Iraqi civilians are imposing a self-styled exile of sorts avoiding busy streets, market places, bus stops, stations and most restaurants.

Whenever the level of violence spikes, Baghdad looks as if it is under permanent curfew – a city deserted and parched under the summer sun.

"One would not go out except for very necessary reasons," said 40-year-old Jaafar Ibrahim of the Baghdad Municipality Administration department.

"The dangers are extremely high nowadays and you can see the streets almost abandoned because of the threats of car bombs and sectarian militias." he added.

Fleeing the violence

Wandering about the streets of the capital city, one is reminded of the last days of March 2003 when US forces were approaching the outskirts and its residents were fleeing to other parts of the country. Those that stayed hunkered down in their homes with whatever provisions they had hoarded.

Now they find themselves fleeing again.

"One has to think of women and the little ones," said 43 year old Raghib Omar who fled the city for Mosul, 380km to the north.

"My name is an additional reason that puts me through highest risk of being assassinated by sectarian militias and my family will not be safe anyway,” he said referring to the rumoured targeting of males traditionally using Sunni names.

Other Iraqis say their self-imposed exile within their own homes is biting in their pockets. With unemployment rampant, finding a job is a rarity. Keeping it is a miracle.

"There is no income what so ever except for government officials and the rest of us can not get a bite for our children," complained 35 year old car trader Yassir Fadhil who had to stay in his house because he could not afford to cross the border to Jordan or Syria like many other Iraqis did.

"I guess we will stay here and face our destiny with honour rather than go beg others for a low job abroad." He added bitterly.

Blame the Zarqawis

While Shia and Sunni residents of the city agree that terrorism is tearing the social fabric apart, they disagree along sectarian lines as to who is behind the violence.

"It is the Zarqawis and the Saddamis who are ruining the country," said 30-year-old Daawa party member Riza Ali.

Shias blames Saddamists and
al-Qaeda fighters for the killings

"People are afraid of going out because of the car bombs and foreign suicide bombers who are killing any one that moves in the street."

But 25-year-old computer engineer Salim Hakki of Karrada district says he is targeted by Shia militias just for being Sunni.

"And Americans are covering up for the militias by allowing them to move freely during curfew hours while arresting any Sunni who has a simple pistol at home for self defence. That is the reason why most Sunnis fled Baghdad for safer cities and towns or to neighbouring countries"

Sectarian militia

Both US and Iraqi government officials are now blaming sectarian militias for the collapsing security situation in Baghdad, Basra and Diyala where a mixture of Shia and Sunni families once lived in mixed neighbourhoods.

Most Iraqis believe the Mehdi militia lead by young Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr to be behind much of the violence.

In 2004, Sadr gained notoriety for having stood up against US forces in both Sadr City - named after his father, a revered Shia cleric - and the holy city of Najaf.

Since then, he has consolidated his power by allying with the Daawa party, lead by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Reluctant forces

With nearly 30 seats in the new Iraqi parliament, Iraqi forces are reluctant to move against al-Sadr or his militia.

"Regardless of who and what is causing this, Baghdad remains paralysed and no one can disagree with that assessment," admitted Ali al-Yassiri of the ministry of national Security.

Sunnis see the hand of al-Sadr
loyalists behind sectarian killings

He told Aljazeera.net: "Mistakes are too many to count and every one is responsible. Citizens are not fully co-operating with us and most of us have agendas that sometimes conflict with the high national interests.

"The only hope we have now is for the reconciliation plan to succeed and for all Iraqis to give loyalty to the country rather than sect or party."

After a few moments of reflection, he corrected himself.

"Baghdad is dead, my friend, not paralysed."