IT WAS ALWAYS A SMALL MEASURE OF comfort for most foreign civilians in Iraq that no matter how bad things got they could be pretty sure to find a way out. Not anymore. The major arteries leading to Iraq's borders, once clogged with U.S.-made SUVs carrying journalists and diplomats and aid workers, are now no-go areas patrolled by insurgents eager to kidnap or kill any foreigner they come across. The safest exit strategy is to catch a flight out of Baghdad's international airport and trust that the pilot can dodge the rockets that rebels sometimes fire at planes after takeoff. But last week just getting there was an ordeal: roadside bombs and insurgent attacks prompted U.S. forces to twice seal off the main highway to the airport. The closures were temporary, but across Baghdad, they added to the ineluctable sense that the city is under siege. Behind the blast walls of housing compounds, people huddled, waited and wondered, How are we going to get out of here?
After 18 months of increasingly grisly violence in Iraq, finding an answer to that question has never seemed more urgent to most Americans. While last week wasn't the deadliest since the beginning of the occupation, it was nevertheless among the most distressing. Amid grinding combat between U.S. forces and the insurgency, a surge in kidnappings and decapitations has infused the conflict with a new dimension of terror. Two American contractors pulled from their home in broad daylight early last month were shown on Islamic websites being beheaded by militants loyal to al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi. Their British colleague faced a similar fate. Two Italian women taken four weeks ago were also reportedly executed, though Rome would not confirm the claims. Ten employees of an Iraqi cell-phone company were abducted in Baghdad and Fallujah. That rebels could so easily stage such brazen attacks has left many observers questioning whether the U.S. can possibly bring sanity--to say nothing of stability--to the country it has inherited.