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This is Baghdad. What could be worse?

"I should feel happy," he said.

He shook his head again, a gesture that meant he wasn't.

"We have a heavy heart, really," he said after a few moments of silence. "Just knowing what's happening makes us grieve."

I had come to know Wamidh Nadhme in 2002, before the invasion. A professor of political science at Baghdad University, he was a forthright voice in those tense, uneasy days when Hussein was still in power. He tried to speak with complete honesty despite the possible consequences of doing so in a police state. With an ever-present Dunhill cigarette, he would slowly field questions back then, reasoning out every intricate response, surrounded by his French-style furniture, worn Persian carpets and a framed piece of papyrus from Egypt, where he had spent time in exile as a young activist. But on this visit, reason eluded him, as did explanation.

"I find myself unable to understand what's going on," he said.

Wamidh had settled into what he called "withdrawal." He still visited the university once a week, but Baghdad was simply too dangerous to venture outside. After nightfall, the streets of his neighborhood of Adhamiya look like they might an hour or so before dawn: dark, without traffic, and menacing. As we talked, helicopters rumbled overhead. Gunfire burst almost continuously.

"You feel like the country is exploding," he said.

We traded stories. One I had heard from a friend: Insurgents stopped a driver at a checkpoint. They opened his trunk. "Why do you have a spare tire?" the insurgent asked solemnly. "You don't have trust in God?"

Well into 2005, Wamidh has bristled at the notion of a sectarian divide, even as the very geography of Baghdad began to transform into Shiite and Sunni halves divided by the Tigris River. Like many Iraqis, he blamed the Americans for naively viewing the country solely through that sectarian prism before the war, then forging policies that helped make it that way afterward. He ran through other "awful mistakes": the carnage unleashed by Sunni insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda, the assassination of a Shiite ayatollah in 2003 who may have bridged differences, the devolution of Sadr's movement today into armed, revenge-minded mobs.

As Wamidh finished, he flashed his customary modesty. "Perhaps you could correct me?" he offered.

I asked him whether it would become worse if the American military withdrew.

He looked at me for a moment without saying anything, as though he were a little confused.

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