BAGHDAD — U.S. forces have stepped back from massive military action in the turbulent cities of Fallouja and Najaf, but the overwhelming sense here is that across much of Iraq, the ground is giving way beneath the Americans.
A culture of impunity has taken hold in Iraq. There are few limits to who can be taken hostage or how a hostage might be killed. In this environment, virtually any level of violence is acceptable if it is aimed at the occupation.
The loathing many Fallouja residents have for foreigners, an attitude bred of the Sunni Triangle city's long-standing insularity and 12 months of deadly faceoffs with U.S. forces, has spread. More and more Iraqis who once resented -- but tolerated -- Americans now refuse to even talk to them.
The moves on Fallouja, which Marines besieged two weeks ago, and especially on Najaf, where anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr has taken refuge, are pushing many Iraqis to choose sides between the occupation force and other Iraqis. Enduring religious animosities have been put aside as the more radical Sunnis and Shiites join to fight a new common enemy: the United States.
"If we force them to choose, they will choose their own," said a senior official in the U.S.-led coalition.
Although the military situation calmed last week, the reality on the ground was, if anything, more disturbing than the week before.
For foreigners -- troops, diplomats, contractors rebuilding the country, and journalists -- kidnappings became a daily occurrence. Shootings of people who look non-Arab -- regardless of whether they were Western, Asian or African -- became routine.
Numbers are hard to come by, since many incidents go unreported. But among the victims were half a dozen Bangladeshis attacked as they left Baghdad in a minivan; four died. At least seven Americans who were escorting a military supply convoy near the town of Abu Ghraib were attacked with small-arms fire. Several are believed to be dead, and at least two were taken hostage.
In another incident, four Italians were captured. The kidnappers shot one of their captives in the head and videotaped it, according to published reports.
Just three weeks ago, travel was easy outside Baghdad. There were risky stretches, but military convoys could pass. Foreign contractors could make their way from place to place, and journalists could drive to most areas of the country.
Now the roads out of the capital are so dangerous that few foreigners venture outside city limits. Nearly every day, a new area is closed or categorized as uncertain by the military.
On a recent trip to Karbala, a Shiite holy city about two hours' drive south of Baghdad, there were seven checkpoints manned by four different militias: the Al Mahdi army, a group mustered by Sadr; the Badr Organization, which is affiliated with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a major religious party; the Hawza guards, linked to religious scholars in the pilgrimage towns of Najaf and Karbala; and the militia of the Islamic Dawa Party, a religious and political group. Only some of the armed men wore uniforms.
Russia, France, Japan and other countries are urging their nationals to leave Iraq. Some reconstruction projects have stopped altogether; others have slowed substantially. In the absence of a robust rebuilding effort, the economic growth that underpins a democratic society cannot take off.
In some measure, the violence against Westerners is viewed as retribution for the violence in Fallouja. Whether that is true or not, belief that Americans behaved as barbarians and that thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead is widespread. According to Arab custom and especially tribal tradition, they should be avenged.
No one knows for sure what really happened in Fallouja. All the parties involved have an interest in presenting the events in a manner that maximizes their advantage.
But the specter of carnage at the hands of Western infidels taps deep into the Iraqi consciousness, raising revulsion. It summons images of domination by the Ottoman Empire and the British, periods of profound humiliation.
"Now all the people, even the most ignorant, believe the only solution is resistance. The Americans are killing children, destroying homes, killing women," said Sheik Bilal Habashi, who runs a mosque in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Baghdad, near the road to Fallouja.
"The Americans want to enter Fallouja as invaders. When an invader wants to enter a city, the people start defending their city, even the women," he said.
It certainly is a possibility that U.S. forces will reassert their dominance. But at the moment, it appears that the insurgency has managed to wreak havoc in enough places that 137,000 troops are not sufficient.
"They never did have enough forces to establish security," said retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations who led troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and commanded a peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.