The US military is building a three-mile-long wall around Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah in order to isolated it from the surrounding Shiite areas, and prevent sectarian attacks.
Stars and Stripes, a newspaper published for the US military community serving abroad, reported Thursday that according to a military press release, personnel began construction on the wall on April 10, and will continue work "almost nightly" until it is complete.
"The area the wall will protect is the largest predominately Sunni neighborhood in East Baghdad. Majority-Shiite neighborhoods surround it on three sides. Like other religiously divided regions in the city, the area has been trapped in a spiral of sectarian violence and retaliation," according to the release.
In January, when the new Baghdad security plan and troop "surge" were announced, the "gated community" concept was reported by several news agencies as one tactic to be used.
Stars and Stripes notes, however, that Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the top spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, said Wednesday that he was unaware of construction of the wall, and said that such a tactic is not a policy of the Baghdad security plan. "We have no intent to build gated communities in Baghdad," he said. "Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves]."
The Los Angeles Times indicates that the plan, which it notes is "the first [barrier in Baghdad] to be based in essence on sectarian considerations," is a local decision made by US military operating in the neighborhood.
"We defer to commanders on the ground, but dividing up the entire city with barriers is not part of the plan," U.S. military spokesman Army Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Thursday.
The Times writes that US commanders say the wall is meant to prevent suicide bombers and death squads from launching attacks across sectarian lines. But the Times adds that both Sunnis and Shiites in the affected neighborhood "were united in their contempt for the imposing new structure."
"Are they trying to divide us into different sectarian cantons?" said a Sunni drugstore owner in Adhamiya, who would identify himself only as Abu Ahmed, 44. "This will deepen the sectarian strife and only serve to abort efforts aimed at reconciliation."
Some of Ahmed's customers come from Shiite or mixed neighborhoods that are now cut off by large barriers along a main highway. Customers and others seeking to cross into the Sunni district must park their cars outside Adhamiya, walk through a narrow passage in the wall and take taxis on the other side. ...
"I feel this is the beginning of a pattern of what the whole of Iraq is going to look like, divided by sectarian and racial criteria," Abu Marwan, 50, a Shiite pharmacist, said.
The Associated Press reports, however, that some Sunnis approve of the plan, though they fear it will deepen the city's sectarian divides.
As work continued Friday, the day of worship in mostly Muslim Iraq, several Sunnis living in Azamiyah welcomed the effort to improve their security, but said the wall was another sign of the deep hostility between Sunnis and Shiites.
"It is good from one hand to curb violence and have control of terrorists. But it's bad on the other hand to be separated from others. We should live in one area like brothers, not be separated from one another," said Bashar Abdul Latif, a 45-year-old teacher.
"I don't think this wall will solve the city's serious security problems," said Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, 35, a government worker. "It will only increase the separation between our people, which has been made so much worse by the war."
Concern that the wall will heighten tension between Baghdad's Sunnis and Shiites is supported by study of the situation over the years in Belfast, which was riven by "peace lines" - metal and brick walls, some as tall as 30 feet, meant to separate Protestant and Catholic enclaves in order to prevent violence. The Guardian reported in 2002 that a survey of those living along the peace lines found that the segregation of the two groups had grown worse since a 1994 ceasefire.
Prejudice on both sides was so marked among the 18- to 25-year-olds that 68% had never had a meaningful conversation with anyone from the other community. In all age groups six out of 10 said they had been victims of verbal or physical abuse since the first ceasefire of 1994, and the same number believed that community relations had worsened during the same period. ...
According to the survey, older people were more likely to cross sectarian lines to shop, and to attend health centres and other facilities.
They were less likely to see themselves as potential victims of violence and more inclined to see good in people on the other side. This was mainly because they had memories and contacts in the other communities from before the Troubles erupted in 1968.
Young people were least likely to cross the peace lines. The number of acts of violence was increasing. Although the number of murders had reduced, the number of fist fights and other acts of intimidation or physical attack was rising.
Israel's "security fence," a concrete barrier being built between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank to prevent terrorist attacks, provides evidence of the economic impact of such a barrier. The Christian Science Monitor reported in February 2003 that the West Bank barrier had a "profound impact" in the Palestinian town of Qalqilya.
Agriculture has traditionally acted as an economic shock absorber during hard times, employing people when they lost jobs elsewhere. But wall construction has cut people off from that shock absorber. An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people have already left Qalqilya in order to escape the stricter Israeli hold on their lives and pocketbooks. The wall comes on top of an isolation initiated by Israeli closures and curfews.
"Qalqilya depends on agriculture, the manpower of its people, and the commercial sector. These three sectors have been hit hard by the [Israeli] siege, and the city has been isolated from the surrounding villages," Governor Malki says. "Now when you bear in mind that villagers from nearby villages can't come to Qalqilya anymore, up to 85 percent of the economy has come to a halt."
But despite the sociological and economic effects of security walls, analysts say they can achieve their stated purpose — to reduce violence. Ben Thein, in a 2004 article for Middle East Quarterly, argues that "there is little doubt that the security barriers work," particularly in the case of Israel where, he notes, suicide attacks "declined 75 percent in the first six months of 2004 compared to an equivalent period in 2003."