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Baghdad's downward spiral

''THE FIRST thing you should know is that the plane lands in a corkscrew landing -- perhaps appropriately a downward spiral." Thus began a ''visitor's guide" e-mail by Anne Barnard, the Globe's woman in Baghdad. I was familiar with the landing technique, to avoid ground fire, from the bad old days in Cambodia 30 years ago. What surprised me was the downward spiral of Baghdad, despite all I had read.

It seems impossible that two and a half years after the city's occupation began, life here is still so precarious. Suicide car bombers strike when and where they want, and bombs are planted in dead dogs and old tires bringing death by IED, the ubiquitous ''improvised explosive device" that has been responsible for half of America's deaths as well as uncounted Iraqis.

This is no longer the Baghdad I first knew 20 years ago, even then weary from Saddam's ruinous war with Iran. What seemed clean and modern then seems shabby now after two more wars, with piles of rubbish in the streets. Shattered buildings await the reconstruction that never seems to come. With electricity, the arterial blood of urban life, still in such short supply, the voice of the generator is heard in the land, so reminiscent of Beirut in that city's bad old days. American armored convoys sally forth into the city's traffic, with frightened young soldiers who, in practice if not intention, shoot first if you get too close, and find out who you were later. Also, there are many more scarves on women's heads, for the old secular Baghdad is dying as religiosity floods in to fill the vacuum left by the old tyrant's departure.

Worse, there is a sense of fear and chaos in the air, a feeling of powerlessness that leads to a kind of apathy. At an Iraqi dinner table the talk turned to which neighborhoods are worse in terms of criminality and kidnappings, the cottage industries of the new Baghdad. A doctor told me that his staff doesn't always show up at his hospital anymore. ''It's because of the chaos in this country," he said. There is a sort of preemptive ethnic cleansing going on as people move out of neighborhoods and relocate to avoid hostility, be it Shi'a, Sunni, or Kurd.

Make no mistake. There was plenty of fear in the days of Saddam, who ruled by intimidation. Many Baghdadis, especially Shi'ites, are quick to tell you how they suffered and say we should have already hanged Saddam. But this intrusive insecurity in ordinary life is wearing people down. President Bush said that Iraqi lives were going to get a whole lot better, but that day never seems to come, and it is depressing to hear some Iraqis wax nostalgic for Saddam's law and order.

Iraqi politicians live in guarded compounds to protect themselves, not only from insurgents, but from each other. The assassin's hand is never far, and death squads of one faction or another roam the city. Sometimes they are disguised as the police. Sometimes they are the police. ''We are becoming like Central America," an Iraqi tells me, but it might be more like Yugoslavia after Tito or Lebanon in the '70s when one's confession became more important than a unified national purpose.

Americans would like to see position- based parties replace sectarian and ethnic alliances, and some Iraqis are trying. But sectarianism still holds sway. As Iraq's security forces are trained in haste, the worry is that recruits will still cling to their confessional and ethnic agendas rather than forming a truly national army. Meanwhile, no one believes that efforts to win people away from the ever-raging insurgency will bear fruit any time soon. Nor can militants be defeated militarily.

One is buffeted by contradictions and mood swings between hope and despair. Earlier this week four reporters were listening to the impressive vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, speak of a brighter future of accommodation and compromise leading to a cessation of violence when a knock on the door brought unwelcome news. ''They have assassinated my brother," Abdul-Mahdi told us, and the interview was hastily concluded.

Nothing and no one is really safe in Baghdad today. I am told that when a suicide cement mixer tried to destroy the Palestine Hotel last week, its radiator flew through the air and landed in a nearby yard with feathers stuck to its twisted metal remains. In Baghdad even the birds can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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