BAGHDAD — The slogans express the country's dream of unity: "Iraq is for everyone." But the reality lies in where they are plastered and spraypainted — on the hundreds of checkpoints that carve up the capital.
With three weeks left before a key nationwide vote, Baghdad looks little different from how it did back when the country was on the brink of civil war in 2006 — divided, gripped by fear and dissected by concrete blast walls.
Election campaigning is only stoking the tensions. Thousands of campaign posters and banners around the city play to potentially explosive sectarian resentments, with Shiites painting Sunnis as loyal to Saddam Hussein or al-Qaida and Sunnis depicting Shiites as oppressing their community.
The March 7 election for a new parliament will produce a government that will shoulder the task of shepherding the nation after the last American soldier leaves by next year's end. It will have to maintain security in the face of an increasingly bold insurgency and negotiate an enduring, power-sharing deal between the country's main Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups.
Failure in one or both tasks would plunge the country back into the chaos and lawlessness of years past and re-ignite the murderous sectarian conflict of 2006 and 2007 that tore the country apart.
Despite a dramatic drop in the number of insurgent attacks, today's Baghdad offers little reassurance for the future.
"Things are going from bad to worse with security and services because officials are preoccupied with the election and their own interests," said Ali Mohsen, a Shiite civil servant from eastern Baghdad.
Across the city in the Sunni district of Azamiyah, university student Salem Khatab Mohammed laments, "I don't feel safe anywhere in Baghdad with explosions or gunfire likely to happen at any moment."
After a series of devastating bombings that hit high-profile targets in the heart of Baghdad since August, authorities added more blast walls and checkpoints to the thousands already in place. Major roads by government offices and other potential targets have been closed.
Some checkpoints have taken a permanent nature, with sleeping areas for soldiers built next to them. One on the southern approaches of Kazimiyah, a Shiite district that's home to a revered shrine and popular food and gold markets, now has a vehicles' search area nearly the size of an Olympic swimming pool.
Thousands of policemen and army troops patrol the streets round the clock in pickup trucks and SUVs.
Fearing for their safety, many Baghdadis are reluctant to venture out of their neighborhoods after nightfall, and most streets empty by 9 or 10 P.M. at the latest.
In many ways, it is a throwback to the dark days of the sectarian bloodbath, when most residents left home only when absolutely necessary, fearing death squads and sectarian militiamen.
To this day, entire neighborhoods that once were flashpoints remain closed off by 6-foot-high blast walls, accessible mostly by a single entrance controlled by security forces. Drivers endure tortuously long waits to enter, and in some cases must show identity papers.
At the Imam Abu Haneifa mosque in northern Baghdad, Iraq's holiest Sunni site, blast walls bearing Quranic verses have recently been placed around it. "Trust that only what God has willed for us will hurt us," reads one verse tellingly.
"How much more of this tragedy must we endure?" bemoaned Saleh Omran, a Sunni retiree from Baghdad's Mansour district. "We have lost our humanity," said Omran, who acknowledges he stays clear off Shiite areas after dark.
Ironically, it is the checkpoints — among the most potent symbols of Baghdad since the U.S. invasion of 2003 — that offer a vision of a united country, rid of corruption and sectarianism. The slogans put up by soldiers and police proclaim, "Loyalty to the homeland and the people only," or "No favoritism at the expense of duty."
In contrast, the message from the election posters is divisive and, in some cases, amounts to incitement. Each side — the Shiites who now dominate the government along with the Kurds, and the Sunni minority — depicts itself as oppressed by the other.
"Oh, Hussein, here we come to your aid," declare posters put up by Shiite candidate Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a former prime minister. It's a reference to Imam Hussein, a beloved Shiite saint martyred in the 7th century in a battle that solidified the Shiite-Sunni split.
Another al-Jaafari poster warns, "There is no room for Baath," a reference to members of Saddam Hussein's former ruling party. Shiites often warn that the Baath is plotting to return to power, while Sunnis accuse the Shiites of exploiting such fears to squeeze them out of any political role.
Other posters show a candidate from Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc pointing his finger menacingly, warning, "Those who wish to see the tyrants humiliated must vote for judge Mahmoud Saleh al-Hassan."
More than 440 mostly Sunni candidates, including senior politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, have been barred from running in the election by a Shiite-led vetting body because of suspected Baath Party ties. The resulting row has poisoned Shiite-Sunni relations and raised questions about the vote's credibility.
Al-Mutlaq, in a thinly veiled dig at Shiite rivals, joked Monday that campaign posters of "thieves" outnumber "honest men." Later in the day, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, also running in the election, threw his own jibe at Sunni politicians, telling a campaign rally that some lawmakers in the outgoing legislature work for al-Qaida.
Adding to the tension, hundreds of angry Sunnis took to the streets in Baghdad and the city of Fallujah this week in protests after a senior Shiite lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, made comments the seemed to insult a companion of the Prophet Muhammad revered by Sunnis but vilified by Shiite extremists.
Campaign posters for Shiite and Sunni parties are found only in neighborhoods dominated by one or the other sect, an indication Iraqis remain married to a sectarian voting pattern.
The posters of Sunni candidates show no less bitterness.
"I will not forgive those who oppressed you," promises Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a former speaker of parliament — a slogan his Sunni supporters will easily understand as meaning Shiites.