As war ebbs, Baghdad blast walls start coming down
By REBECCA SANTANA
BAGHDAD — At a time when other parts of the Arab world are in turmoil, Iraq is feeling stable enough to begin removing some of the tall concrete blast walls that went up as protection against bombings and insurgents during the height of the war.
Iraqis have seen it before. In 2009 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki started taking down walls, only to restore them when a series of government buildings were bombed.
But in the past couple of weeks they’ve been coming down again, starting in Baghdad, and if this time it’s for good, traffic jams will ease, trade will pick up and Baghdadis will be rid of an ugly symbol of everything Iraq has gone through since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“We’re delighted with this. At least it will give us a feeling that the security crisis we have lived through is finished,” said Qassim Karim, a 50-year-old flour trader, as Iraqi workers loaded uprooted barriers onto flatbed trucks with cranes.
Iraqis have been creative in dealing with the thousands of gray walls that both protect and blight Baghdad. They’ve painted them with pretty murals, chipped passageways through them, used them as advertising space.
Standing about as tall as basketball hoops, the walls were put up here and in other cities by American and Iraqi forces to shield markets and buildings from bomb blasts, disrupt insurgents’ communications and hinder the movement of car bombs and weapons.
They are the first thing arriving visitors see when they come out of Baghdad International Airport. They encircle almost every government building, military installation and mosque, channeling pedestrians through designated entrances and exits. During the height of the insurgency, whole neighborhoods were walled in.
The first wall being removed is at Sadr City, a slum of about 2 million people in eastern Baghdad.
From here the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, terrorized Sunnis, attacked American troops and posed a dire threat to al-Maliki’s authority.
In 2008, American troops put up what they called “Phase Line Gold” – a concrete wall on a main road that split Sadr City.
It was a deadly undertaking, laying down a few hundred meters (yards) of wall at a time, mostly at night, under almost constant attack.
“The fighting along the wall to put Gold up was brutal,” said Phillip J. Dermer, a retired U.S. Army colonel who at the time was the senior adviser to the head of the Baghdad Operations Command running military operations in the city. “You could tell the intensity of the fighting by the damage on either side of the line.”
The aim was to hem in the insurgents and push back the rocket teams firing into the Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi and American government operations, Dermer said.
“You get a controlled environment in which to work in and to operate from,” he said. “Nobody could get in. Nobody could get resupplied. They can’t get out.”
But the walls exacted an economic and social price, and Iraqis now view them with a mixture of grudging gratitude and downright hostility.
Surrounded by well-ordered, dusty stacks of flour at his warehouse by the wall in Sadr City, Karim said he was selling between 200 and 300 tons a month before the wall went up. That number dropped to as low as 110 tons a month after Phase Line Gold went up, but is recovering as the barrier falls.
Buildings pockmarked with bullets testify to the intense fighting that once defined this neighborhood.
Abdulla Abdul Sahab, 65, who was watching the walls come down, said they served their security purpose but also cut off his neighborhood from the school and health clinic.
“You could see hills of garbage next to the walls,” he said.
Now the Baghdad Provincial Council says it wants the U.S. to pay $1 billion for traffic jams, paralyzed businesses and damage allegedly caused by the walls to the sewage system and sidewalks. In a statement, the council said the blast walls were “put up under the pretext of security.”
The populist move demonstrates the anger that many Iraqis feel toward the U.S. over the war.
Some of the walls will stay indefinitely, including those that protect the Green Zone. But another place where they are coming down is Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, home to the al-Askari shrine revered by Shiites. The move is significant because the shrine was severely damaged in a 2006 al-Qaida bombing that provoked a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath.
The Baghdad military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told The Associated Press that the decision to remove the walls followed a meeting between al-Maliki and senior security officials.
Al-Moussawi said Phase Line Gold went first because security was good there. But Hadi Jalo, a Baghdad political analyst, said it was also a political move.
Sadr City is the stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In 2008 he and al-Maliki were enemies. Now they are partners in the ruling coalition. The next test, he said, would be how quickly walls are removed around Sunni communities, who are less closely bound to al-Maliki.
And if the walls are needed again, they won’t be far away. Al-Moussawi said they will be used to form a security cordon around Baghdad.
Associated Press writers Saad Abdul-Kadir, Hamid Ahmed and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.