By Patrick Cockburn
Published: 10 June 2007
Omar, a Sunni driver, lived in a pleasant house in a Shia neighbourhood of al-Jihad district in west Baghdad until he decided that it was too dangerous for his family to stay. He moved with them to Damascus, but it was too expensive and he had no chance of getting a job.
He returned to his home in al-Jihad, but when he arrived his neighbours said that the Mahdi Army Shia militia had left a message for him. It said that if he ever re-occupied the house, they would kill him.
Omar moved to the supposedly safer Sunni district of al-Khadra, but now he faces another problem. Al-Qa'ida insurgents are demanding that he join them on nightly patrols.
First they asked him politely to meet their emir or local leader. Later, when he failed to do so, they became more menacing.
They said: "Either you come with us or you will have to leave here. We suspect that you are not a Sunni, because a real Sunni would not hesitate to join the jihad."
Across Iraq, millions of people are looking for safer places to live, and not finding them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported last week that 4.2 million Iraqis have been forced out of their homes.
There are also ominous signs that the four-month-old US security plan for Baghdad is failing to reduce the level of violence despite an extra 17,000 US troops in the capital.
"The situation in Iraq continues to worsen," the UNHCR announced, "with more than two million Iraqis now believed to be displaced inside the country and another 2.2 million sheltering in neighbouring states."
The Iraqi refugee crisis is now surpassing in numbers anything ever seen in the Middle East, including the expulsion or flight of the Palestinians in 1948.
Since the sectarian pogroms that followed the destruction of the Shia shrine in Samarra in February 2006, an estimated 850,000 people have been displaced within Iraq, including 15,000 Palestinians who have nowhere to go.
"Individual governorates inside Iraq are becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the displaced," said an UNHCR spokesperson, Jennifer Pagonis. "At least 10 out of 18 governorates have closed their borders, or are denying access to new arrivals."
As a result, many refugees are taking refuge in shanty towns, and almost half of them are not receiving the state-subsidised rations that enable most Iraqis to feed themselves.
The UN Assistance Mission to Iraq and the World Food Programme estimate that "at least 47 per cent of the displaced have no access to official food distribution channels".
The number of Iraqis taking refuge in other countries continues to climb, with 1.4 million in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt and 200,000 in the Gulf region.
Syria alone is receiving 30,000 Iraqis a month. The arrival of so many extra people in Damascus has led to a steep rise in the price of food.
The exodus is not likely to end. The arrival of extra American troops in Baghdad, the so-called "surge", which started on 14 February, led to a brief decline in the number of sectarian killings, but these are once again on the rise.
Some 736 bodies were found dumped in the streets of Baghdad in May, which exceeds the number found in January prior to the new security plan. So far in June 206 bodies have been found. Most are the victims of sectarian killings.
American control of Baghdad remains very limited, with one divisional survey finding that US and Iraqi government forces control only 146 out of 457 neighbourhoods. US and government authority is even more limited in the towns around the capital.
Most of the killings are concentrated in west Baghdad, where many districts are contested between Sunni and Shia, while east Baghdad is very largely controlled by the Shia.
What some Iraqi politicians call "the battle for Baghdad", effectively a sectarian civil war, has been largely won by the Shia who, going by election results, make up three quarters of the capital's population.