BAGHDAD -- U.S. forces have stepped back from massive military action in the turbulent cities of Fallujah 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 Fallujah 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 Fallujah, 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 Fallujah. 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 Fallujah. 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 Fallujah.
"The Americans want to enter Fallujah 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.
"So they had to kick a lot of cans down the road, including Sadr and the militias -- there are a lot of militias around the country, not just his," Nash said, referring to the policy of avoiding a head-on confrontation with Sadr's and other militias.
To many Westerners, the ambush and mutilation of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah appeared to be the start of the troubles. But tracing the onset of this downward spiral, two other events stand out that at the time were viewed by Westerners as relatively ordinary.
Six days before the attack on the contractors, newly arrived Marines had entered Fallujah -- the first time in months that U.S. forces had done so. In a battle for control near an entrance to the city, Marines killed between eight and 18 Iraqis, some of them civilians. That set off a cycle of revenge, including the ambush and mutilation of the contractors and a nearly simultaneous assault that killed five Marines.
The second event occurred two days after that initial battle. The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority shut down a newspaper sponsored by Sadr, angering his supporters. Within hours, 500 to 1,000 followers rallied in front of the paper's office.
News spread that a key Sadr deputy had been arrested in the killing of cleric Abdul Majid Khoei, a Sadr rival who was stabbed to death about a year ago. The ranks of the humiliated and furious multiplied.
Within a few days, Sadr's chief deputies were urging his followers to take to the streets against the Americans. Soon the popular agitation spread far beyond Sadr City, the poor Baghdad neighborhood that is Sadr's base. His militia took over police stations and government offices in several southern cities and began kidnapping foreigners on the roads.
At the time, it seemed surprising that Shiites received words of support and pledges of help from Sunni insurgents in Fallujah. The alliance runs counter to decades of mistrust driven by religious differences as well as political standing. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority was ruthlessly repressed while the Sunnis enjoyed favor.
In turn, Shiite mosques warmly supported Fallujah's Sunnis, sending food, medicine and money to aid the insurgency.
What appeared as a spontaneous outpouring of anti-American emotions might in fact have reflected a secret compact between Sadr and insurgents in the Sunni Triangle to produce a national uprising around the April 9 anniversary of Baghdad's fall.
"There was a plan to control the streets around the two to three days of the anniversary of the regime's fall," said Adel Abdel Mehdi, deputy leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who often represents the organization on the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council.
"There were meetings taking place," he said. "They were preparing weapons in safe houses. Contacts were being made between people in southern Iraq and certain groups in Ramadi and Fallujah." He said that Sadr was among those with links to the Sunni Triangle.
Much of southern Iraq is calm again. An exception is Najaf, which remains under a double shadow. One is cast by the 2,500 U.S. troops who have moved near the edge of the holy city, and the other by Sadr, who is viewed by Najaf's religious and intellectual elite as a rabble rouser. However, they would find it disloyal to abandon Sadr, whose father and uncle are revered as martyrs for being assassinated on the orders of Hussein.
There is less violence in Fallujah now as well, but the city remains tense. No one believes the trouble is over. The U.S. is determined to root out the fighters, and it is clear that hundreds -- if not a couple of thousand -- are still there.
Civilians will inevitably be caught in the cross-fire. But the violence also has had a profound effect on educated Iraqis who expected the United States to show their country new ways to solve disagreements.
Bessam Jarrah is a slight, soft-spoken man who is willing to criticize violence by Iraqis. A general surgeon, he has spent much of the last two weeks coordinating efforts of the Islamic League of Medical Professionals, which has been sending volunteer physicians to treat the wounded in Fallouja. He had high hopes for the U.S. role in Iraq, but they have drained away.
"In the first months of the occupation, we, the educated people, thought America would show us a humanitarian way, a political way, to solve problems," Jarrah said. "But this use of force means the efforts to find a political solution for Iraq has failed, and now America is using Saddam's approach to problems: brute force.
"America won the war on April 9 last year; they lost the war on April 9 this year. That is what Iraqis feel."