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Reporter returns to Baghdad and finds it far different—and worse off

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The tiny, dusty shops of Kadhemiya are treasure chests filled with agate, turquoise, coral and amber. I used to spend hours in this colorful Baghdad market district, haggling over prices for semi-precious stones etched with prayers in Arabic calligraphy.

That was just before I left Iraq in 2005, when rings from Kadhemiya were simply sentimental reminders of a two-year assignment here. When I returned to Baghdad last month, however, I found a city so dramatically polarized that sectarian identity now extends to your fingers. Slipping on a turquoise ring is no longer an afterthought, but a carefully deliberated security precaution.

A certain color of stone worn a certain way is just one of the dozens of superficial clues—like dialect, style of beard, how you pin a veil—that indicate whether you're Sunni or Shiite. These little signs increasingly mean the difference between life and death at the terrifying illegal checkpoints that surround the districts of Baghdad. In a surprise reversal, Shiite militiamen have usurped Sunni insurgents as the most feared force on the streets.

When I was last here in 2005, it took guts and guards, but you could still travel to most anywhere in the capital. Now, there are few true neighborhoods left. They're mostly just cordoned-off enclaves in various stages of deadly sectarian cleansing. Moving trucks piled high with furniture weave through traffic, evidence of an unfolding humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Iraqis.

The Sunni-Shiite segregation is the starkest change of all, but nowadays it seems like everything in Baghdad hinges on separation. There's the Green Zone to guard the unpopular government from its suffering people, U.S. military bases where Iraqis aren't allowed to work, armored sedans to shield VIPs from the explosions that kill workaday civilians, different TV channels and newspapers for each political party, an unwritten citywide dress code to keep women from the eyes of men.

Attempts to bring people together have failed miserably. I attended a symposium called "How to Solve Iraq's Militia Problem," but the main militia representatives never showed up and those of us who did were stuck inside for hours while a robot disabled a car bomb in the parking lot.

Then there was the Iraqi government's two-day national reconciliation conference, which offered little more than the grandstanding of politicians whose interests are best served by the fragmenting of their country. The message was: The south is for the Shiites, the north is for the Kurds, the west is for the Sunnis, and the east is open for Iran. Baghdad, the besieged anchor in the center, is a free-for-all.

On one of my first days back, I took a little tour with my Iraqi colleagues at the McClatchy bureau to get reacquainted with the capital. We decided to stay on the eastern Shiite side of the Tigris River rather than play Russian roulette in the Sunni west.

Even on the relatively "safe" side of the river, a dizzying assortment of armed men roamed freely. In the space of an hour, we encountered the Badr Organization militia, the Mahdi Army militia, the Kurdish peshmerga militia, the Iraqi police, interior ministry commandos, the Iraqi military, American troops, the Oil Protection Force, the motorcade of a Communist Party official and Central Bank guards escorting an armored van.

We drove through one of my favorite districts in hopes of visiting shopkeepers I knew. But they had fled, leaving behind padlocked doors and faded signs for shops whose names now seem ironic rather than catchy: "Nuts," "Ghost Music," "Once Upon a Time."

I asked my colleagues to arrange meetings with old Iraqi sources—politicians, professors, activists and clerics—only to be told they'd been assassinated, abducted or exiled.

Even Mr. Milk is dead. The grocer we called by the name of his landmark shop in the upscale Mansour district was kidnapped and killed, along with his son, my colleagues said. The owner of a DVD shop where I once purchased a copy of "Napoleon Dynamite" also had been executed.

So many blindfolded, tortured corpses turn up that an Iraqi co-worker recently told me it was "a slow day" when 17 bodies were found. Typically, the figure is 40 or more. When the overflowing morgue at Yarmouk Hospital was bombed last month, one of our drivers wearily muttered, "How many times can they kill us?"

Even the toughest of my Iraqi colleagues hit their breaking points after experiencing the indignity of being forced from their homes, the trauma of a bomb outside a doorstep, the grief for a cousin killed by a mortar, the shame of staying silent while a neighbor's house was torched.

My colleagues were fearful of the future when I left, but at least they went home every night to home-cooked meals and the bustle of domestic life. A few had even purchased land in the optimistic belief that 2006 would bring a measure of calm. Now, half the staff has sent their families to safer countries, and others plan to do the same. For them, there is no ivory-tower debate over whether they're living in a civil war.

On any given night, we have three or four Iraqi staff members camping out at the office. I find them surfing the Internet for visa applications to European countries, information on the U.S. green-card lottery, fellowship programs, political asylum eligibility. At night, they burn through phone cards to baby talk with their children in Syria or blow kisses to them from a Web cam.

I covered a day of the Saddam Hussein trial because I was curious to see the dictator in person. When I returned to the office, none of my Iraqi co-workers asked about their former president. They despise him, to be sure, but they shrugged and declared him yesterday's news, as irrelevant to their lives as the current crop of leaders cloistered in the Green Zone with no control over the anarchic landscape outside.

Survival is their chief concern, and it's reflected even in greetings. Local custom calls for a string of flowery salutations, but these days the response to "Shlonak?"—How are you?—is shortened to one word: "Alive."

Electricity is on for just a couple of hours a day in most districts. Gas lines stretch for block after block. Food prices are higher than ever, especially for fresh produce, which requires rural farmers to make the treacherous drive to Baghdad markets. The water is contaminated. Gunmen in police uniforms stage brazen mass abductions, evaporating faith in the Iraqi security forces.

Universities are in bad shape. Instructors have fled, mortars interrupt classes, and people have been kidnapped at the gate. With violence emptying campuses, the Iraqi prime minister issued an order this month that threatens expulsion or dismissal for students and teachers who don't come back to class.

On the drive back to our hotel from the Green Zone last week, I saw a group of adorable little girls in pinafores, knee socks and ponytails. They were walking home from a nearby elementary school, stepping over trash and yanking their skirts from barbed wire. I had my camera with me and asked the driver to stop so I could take a picture.

A year ago, I would have snapped away. This time, I hesitated.

Perhaps a guard somewhere would think I was a kidnapper and shoot at me. Perhaps a parent would come screaming and cause a ruckus over a suspicious foreigner in the neighborhood. But more than anything, I was stopped by the thought of the terrified looks on the girls' faces if a stranger holding a camera approached them.

In a country where there is so much fear, why add even a little bit more?

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(Hannah Allam covers the Middle East and Islamic world as bureau chief in Cairo, Egypt. She recently returned to Baghdad on assignment, where she previously spent more than two years reporting on the war in Iraq as Baghdad bureau chief. She was named "Journalist of the Year 2004" by the National Association of Black Journalists. Knight Ridder recognized her war coverage with a Journalism Excellence Award in 2004 and the John S. Knight Gold Medal in 2005. The Overseas Press Club awarded Allam and two colleagues from the Baghdad bureau its Hal Boyle Award for best newspaper reporting from abroad in 2005. She joined the McClatchy Washington bureau's foreign staff in 2003.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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