Abu Nawas, Baghdad's storied riverbank thoroughfare, reopened amid much official fanfare two weeks ago. But three years since they last saw business, merchants on the street are facing a new challenge, say some local merchants: overwhelming security.
Abu Nawas – once witness to frequent suicide car bombs and mortar attacks – now hums with activity of a different sort. The newly fortified area is patrolled by Humvees and guarded by US-funded private security companies that search every entering vehicle and scrupulously monitor shopkeepers and residents – and occasional intrepid visitors.
For Hassan Abdullah, a cabinetmaker, that spells bad business. "It's worse than the Green Zone," he exclaims. No customers come in. He can't even deliver orders, he says.
It's not just Abu Nawas that's starting to resemble a fortress. Walls like those around the ultrasecure Green Zone, where US officials and Iraqi dignitaries live and work, are rising around neighborhoods all over Baghdad – new "Green Zones" protected by US-paid Iraqi neighborhood guards.
Creating civilian havens is a cornerstone of the US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. While many here are grateful for the newfound calm, they say the price is an increasingly segregated city that is starting to feel like a collective cage. In many cases, the US military is keeping tabs on male residents by collecting fingerprints and retinal scans.
"One road in and one road out, that's it," says Ghazaliya resident Muhammad Rajab. "Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison," he adds wryly.
Violence has fallen to its lowest level since February 2006, and attacks on US forces are down 55 percent since June, according to the US military. But the top US commander, Gen. David Petraeus, warned against complacency last week, a day after Baghdad saw its worst car bombing since September. Sunday, the police chief of Babil Province, a US ally, was killed. Two days after, suicide attacks against US-funded neighborhood guards in Diyala killed 26, and a shooting in Mosul killed two prominent US tribal allies.
In Baghdad, the extent of the transformation is clear from driving along main arteries. Western areas – Adel, Ameriyah, Ghazaliya, and Jamiaa, until recently stomping grounds for Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda-linked fighters, are ringed with concrete walls at least 12-feet high.
The western highway is secured by numerous Iraqi Army checkpoints. Reminders of this zone's violent recent history are everywhere: a gutted flyover bridge, bullet-riddled homes, and graffiti that reads, "Down with Bin Laden and his miserable bunch." A battered sign reads: "Welcome to Baghdad."
The landscape resembles that of other western and southern neighborhoods like Amel, Dora, and Saidiyah. The perimeter sometimes includes wire fences, favored spots to hang black funeral banners or white ones advertising holidays abroad.
In northeast Baghdad and down the Canal Street expressway, miles of 6-foot-high walls ring neighborhoods like Jamila, Jazayer, and Ur on the edge of the predominantly Shiite slum of Sadr City. "Rafah crossing" is scrawled on a concrete wall near an Iraqi Army-manned entry point – a sarcastic reference to the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
"We are not free, our neighborhood is barricaded … and our officials are over there in the Green Zone," says Hazem Mahmoud, a retired Iraqi Army officer out on an afternoon stroll with his wife on Rubaie Street.
A few miles from Jamila, down the Muhammad al-Qasim highway, massive 12-foot walls surround staunchly Sunni neighborhoods like Adhamiyah and Sulaikh.
"Luke was here," is sprayed on the Adhamiyah wall, probably by a patrolling US soldier. Residents demonstrated against US plans to build the wall earlier this year, but a similar wall went up around Sulaikh about two weeks ago without much of a stir. "If our leaders are happy with it, you expect us, the poor people, to speak up," says Ahmed Abdullah, a Sulaikh resident. "We feel like prisoners in our own country."
Passing through an entry point manned by two AK-47-toting teenage neighborhood guards, Faiza Faiq says: "Thank God the situation is better; we have peace of mind. But in the past 10 days, with these walls, you feel imprisoned a bit."
Suddenly, US troops descend and take over the checkpoint. "It's policing during the day and soldiering at night," quips one US soldier, explaining that the Iraqi guards in Sulaikh are not fully trusted yet.
Mr. Rajab, the Ghazaliya resident who endured a three-hour, cross-town trip that should take 30 minutes to visit a friend in Sulaikh, is thoroughly interrogated.
The idea of protective zones is spreading to the city center. Large segments of the main market, Shorja, are ringed with blast walls and guarded entry points.
In a bid to boost besieged Baghdadis, US and Iraqi military officials held a street party to mark the reopening of Abu Nawas, named for a 6th-century poet, following a $5 million US-funded renovation.
US-paid private guards, seen on a recent visit, were manning a new checkpoint. US soldiers patrol the area. Scenes of ancient Babylon adorn protective walls; side streets are blocked. Cars are few, and the only customers at a street cafe are four undercover Iraqi security agents. "We need this; the Baghdad security plan is only 60 percent done," says one.
At Akkad Gallery, two artists commiserate. "We must live in a situation that the world knows is occupation," says Ali Kamal. Bilal Baher says he misses Adhamiyah's famed sites, now off-limits. "The limits are encroaching on our souls," he says.
The only ones having fun on Abu Nawas were boys playing soccer in the park, as the Green Zone loomed across the Tigris River.