Driving through the streets, it is clear that Baghdad has become a place in fear of itself. Car bombs are the most visible weapon of choice here. The vehicles get left on busy streets and outside public places. The driver walks away with a mobile phone in hand, it’s the trigger, and in an instant death once again visits.
To understand why Iraq has seen such an upsurge in violence this year one must understand its people and what they have been through. For decades Iraqis were oppressed with basic freedoms limited. Certain religious practices and rituals were banned by Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist.
Then in 2003 the Americans came. Depending on whom you ask they arrived as liberators or greedy occupiers. In a few short years they dismantled Iraq, destroyed its government institutions and security apparatus, ridding the country of Saddam’s legacy.
But then a whole section of society was made the enemy. The oppressed Shia majority rose up. Sunni groups armed themselves, and sectarian fighting began in 2006. The Americans failed to understand why.
Desperate, the US tried a number of strategies, including backing some Sunni militias to battle other Sunni groups, while at the same time allowing Shias to strengthen and consolidate their own territory and positions. It worked. In 2009 violence began to subside. To much fanfare, the generals went back to the United States and Iraq saw peace for a while.
But old enmities run deep.
Shia dominated government security squads began making arbitrary arrests. Houses were raided. People disappeared.
Over the border in Syria, meanwhile, what started as an uprising had become a full-scale war. Groups of Sunni militias once backed by the American generals switched sides and joined al-Qaeda-linked groups. The Sunni lived in fear of an Iranian backed Shia Syria and Shia Iraq. That’s why they joined the struggle. Shouting “Allah o Akbar”, they went to fight in Syria and Iraq for a hardline Sunni Islamic state, which they claim was the only way of protecting themselves. Shia groups also crossed the border to fight for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The blowback in Iraq is now obvious for all to see.
As the violence raged throughout 2013, the government tried a crackdown. Forced confessions are broadcast regularly on TV, and young men are paraded out as “terrorists”. While this may well act as a deterrent for some, it acts as a recruiting tool for others. Security is key to a peaceful life. Iraq doesn’t have that. Iraqis have lost faith in politicians who they see as ineffectual and self-serving.
In the north, the Kurds treat their land almost as a separate country, watching Baghdad with one eye and calling for cooperation with the federal government, while at the same time strengthening their state within a state.
This is Iraq at the end of 2013 – a mess of ethnic, sectarian hatred, a land of paranoia and greed by the powerful. But it’s also a land of love stories, of families sharing meals, of the hopes and dreams of the young and idealistic. But that is overshadowed by death.
Death visits Iraq too often. Sadly, it looks doubtful that 2014 will be any different.
Follow Imran Khan on Twitter: @ajimran