BAGHDAD – There’s a graffiti war going on in Baghdad. In Sunni neighborhoods the champions are “Saddam Hussein is a martyr” and “Muqtada [al-Sadr] is the leader of the thieves.” In Shi’ite neighborhoods the favorite used to be “From Fallujah to Kufa Iraq won’t be beaten down”; now “Fallujah” has been erased from the script. In Sadr City the favorite is “Down with the Ba’athists.”

The Adhamiyah wall – the symbol of the Baghdad gulag, rejected by more than 70% of Iraqis – is not yet finished, but the neighborhood is already isolated by a cluster of checkpoints, with all major streets blocked by blast walls and barbed wire. Walls are planned to expand to Dora, Ghazaliyah, Amiriya, al-Amel, al-Adl – a replication of gulag practices in Fallujah, Tal Afar, Haditha, Samarra.

Residents confirm that Adhamiyah is also internally divided. The old area of al-Safina, near a cemetery, is now populated only by hardcore Sunni Arab families and Salafi-jihadis. The area known as Camp, between the Nida Mosque and Officers Street, is now infested with ferocious gangs bent on killing and kidnapping.

The local market has been virtually abandoned by civilians. Shops are open only two hours a day at most. House trading will continue to boom. Scouts search abandoned houses that they subsequently rent to guerrillas or displaced Sunni families. Some houses become prime weapons depots. The motorcycle rules as the only available method of transport. No taxi drivers dare to go to Adhamiyah. US soldiers will continue to raid houses no matter what.

But life somehow goes on. An educated Adhamiyah resident with a good sense of humor tells the story of how “the Americans are every day on patrol. They search houses with their dogs. But one day one of their expensive dogs ran away” – along with his new, “local,” non-pedigreed friends. In five minutes, a kid in the neighborhood self-described as “The Prince of Dogs” got the picture. “In 30 minutes he found the expensive American dog.”

The dog liked him, and they are still together – to the despair of the Americans, who are still searching. Everybody apparently knows this story in Adhamiyah. They call the kid “Iraqi Ali Baba.” “But the kid will have to sell the dog in the market,” adds the resident, because of the high maintenance. So this Gucci dog’s destiny will turn out to be shabby Souq (market) al-Ghazil, already bombed several times.

The words of Sheikh al-Kobaisi, the assistant secretary general of the powerful Sunni Arab Association of Muslim Scholars, to a crowd united to protest the Adhamiyah wall, will continue to resonate with most of Iraq’s 5 million Sunnis. These were the sheikh’s greatest hits: “Who has the power to bomb tanks will bomb this wall”; “Security does not come with tanks and missiles. It will come with the American departure”; “We have not attacked people who are inside the Green Zone. It’s because of their deeds that we have become slaves.”

Blood on the tracks

An Iraqi government ad oozing Madison Avenue-style production values is shown incessantly on Al-Iraqiya state TV, depicting a black-veiled suicide bomber about to blow up a street market. The punch line: “There is no religion in terrorism.” It’s not altering Salafi-jihadis’ hearts and minds. And no matter where the US surge leads, Baghdad – the former prosperous capital of the eastern flank of the Arab nation – will continue to disintegrate into a cluster of decomposing urban tissues at war with one another.

The Mehdi Army will continue to balance the excesses of strands of the Sunni muqawama (resistance) and the Salafi-jihadists, in a bloody operatic crescendo that would make Martin Scorsese green with envy. Karada is now virtually the only open market, with shops open during the day, in all of Baghdad – at least until the next bombing. For their part, US convoys – moving at 5 km/h maximum with their “Danger” and “Stay back 100 meters” messages in large English and minuscule Arabic lettering – will continue to exasperate Baghdadi motorists and bring the city to a halt, not to mention being prime sitting ducks to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car-bombers and snipers.

Attacks similar to the one on independent Radio Digla will be replicated. The radio station is in Adjamiah – a Sunni neighborhood. A couple who managed the station, parents of a little girl, tell how the attackers, presumably Salafi-jihadis, threw a bomb in the garden. “No police showed up, although there are two checkpoints nearby.” Then the attackers started shooting. The employees didn’t leave the small two-story building, and responded with their own Kalashnikov fire. The couple finally managed to escape. “But later the attackers stole a computer with information on all our employees. We’re afraid they could be persecuted one by one.”

In Heiten, another Sunni district, according to residents, the number of houses “inundated with weapons” and “perfect places to hide kidnapped people” is bound to increase. The muqawama in the area even told locals to evacuate a clinic because it could be bombed. In Amiriya, a hardcore Sunni district in west Baghdad, no woman in the streets can afford not to be wearing the niqqab, completely veiling her face.

There will be more and more deadly clashes in Baya’a, in Karkh, on the eastern side of the Tigris, once an area that was a haven of Baghdad culture, now a Mad Max hell.

Snipers will continue to do brisk business. There was the Yemeni sniper of al-Shurta, who was on a steady killing diet of at least six people a day. When he was caught, locals realized there was also a Sudanese sniper. And then came the sniper of al-Ra’y, who specializes in the Shabab area. There’s even a “sniper school” – in al-Radwaniya. People in these affected neighborhoods cannot even dare to cross their own streets.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq – in its demented urban incarnations from Dora to Amiriya – will continue killing even fellow Sunni Arabs, especially harmless barbers (a grudge against un-Islamic haircuts) and garbage collectors (after all, they are government employees). Uncollected piles of garbage – a recurrent Baghdad theme – also offer the prospect of a perfect hideout for IEDs, mines and bombs.

The best time in Baghdad to circumvent the gigantic queues and have a tank filled with gasoline will continue to be immediately after a shooting spree – or a car/truck bombing. More and more mule carts – most carrying propane tanks – will be seen in the dusty streets among the rusty orange-and-white Volkswagen Passats and the sheep grazing by the curbside – heralding the return of Baghdad to the Middle Ages.

The truce between the Iraqi Army and sections of the muqawama will also prevail: “Don’t do anything against us,” say the guerrillas, “and we will not shoot you.” The army’s poor souls anyway are more than ready to admit that they’re only in it for the money – one of the few forms of steady salary available in the country.

The federalists of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq may have changed the party’s name to Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and pledged their unconditional allegiance to revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but it’s their Badr Organization, including death squads, that will continue to lay down the law out of the seventh floor of the Interior Ministry.

Meanwhile, the nationalist Sadrists will continue to rule the Shi’ite street. As for how come Sistani supports the new oil law, which will virtually hand out Iraq’s natural wealth to Anglo-American Big Oil, this crucial matter will explode in all its perfidious contradictions in the Iraqi Parliament next month.

There will be countless more “mysterious” attacks on the Green Zone like the one two weeks ago, in the middle of the night. Residents nearby heard loud explosions and saw columns of smoke. A fleeting Reuters dispatch on the explosions appeared on the Internet, but only in French, with no details, and then mysteriously vanished. Nearby residents are adamant: “The Green Zone is attacked with mortars every day.” And al-Qaeda in Iraq has not even taken its new al-Quds 1 guided missile for a test drive.

Darkness dawns at the break of noon

The United Nations says Somalia is now the most urgent humanitarian crisis on the planet. No it’s not: it’s Iraq. Baghdad is now the ultimate laboratory of perverse social engineering: a brutalized, militarized, neo-Spartan future three-tier society where privileges are enjoyed by the first tier – the US Army, the handsomely paid US shadow army of contractors – and the second tier – Iraqi politicians who spend most of their time in London or Middle Eastern capitals. The overall population are just corralled, humiliated and treated as mere slaves – extras in their own land.

Take Iraqi Airways, for instance. True, some of its pilots have been assassinated. The reservation system is manual. After getting to Baghdad International Airport (which locals still call “Saddam”) – an obstacle course that involves endless checkpoints and body searches – one may wait for as long as half a day, or sometimes a full day, for a “scheduled” flight. “There is no schedule,” comments a passenger.

No flight-departure panel, either. And not a single shred of information. Meanwhile, throngs of bulky contractors loaded with high-tech gear are dutifully guided to their safe, scheduled, comfortable, on-time flights to Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Kuwait. They are superior beings. They sport badges. The average population has no badge; they are infra-beings.

This is the picture of “normal life” for people like the helpless, affable Kurd who poses as the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, as well as scores of high-minded US senators, Congress members and vapid retired generals on CNN. Their pre-packaged, spun-to-the-word certainty is an astonishing insult to world public opinion’s intelligence.

One wonders why they don’t surge via Iraqi Airways on “Saddam” International, buy a cheap Korean portable generator and hit the Red Zone with no Kevlar vests, no bodyguards, no sport-utility vehicles with tinted windows, no protecting Apache helicopters circling overhead, to wallow in the joys of “normal life.”

Leaving Baghdad at night, past curfew time, is one of the saddest experiences of our time. There are just a few dim lights down on the ground – as if the former pride and splendor of Islam are enveloped in a shroud. The only moving object is – what else – a serpentine US convoy about to go on a search-and-destroy mission in “normal life.”

The Bush/Cheney half-trillion-dollar (so far) Iraq adventure razed to the ground an entire Arab state. Not just any Arab state; the cradle of civilization as we know it has been hurled back to medieval times (but with mobile phones for everyone; an Iraqna SIM card costs only US$10).

Blowback will be perennial: the “sanctions generation” – the angry young men who grew up deprived of everything during the 1990s – will never, ever forget it. Even if the Iraqi Parliament votes a timeline for the end of the occupation – as Sadrist leader Nasr al-Roubaie told Asia Times Online two weeks ago (see What Muqtada wants, May 4).

Iraq is and will remain the true heart of darkness of the early 21st century. Forget about Russia or China; now, finally, the administration of President George W. Bush, the military-industrial complex and assorted armchair warriors can finally be assured that the United States has found an enemy for life.