BAGHDAD, Iraq—The United States military has begun sealing off Baghdad neighborhoods with concrete walls in a controversial new strategy intended to calm Baghdad's sectarian flashpoints, but residents fear the barriers could deepen divisions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Seven so-called "gated communities" have been or are being built, according to military officials, and more may be coming under the wide-ranging Baghdad security crackdown launched nine weeks ago.
Officials said the walls would help create islands of security by controlling the flow of people and vehicles in some of the city's most violent neighborhoods, and by keeping armed groups from using the areas as launching pads or targets for attacks.
But residents say the barriers actually increase their feelings of isolation and make them feel like targets.
"Don't they realize that when the Baghdad neighborhoods become either Sunni or Shiite, they will become even more vulnerable?" said Yassir Ismail, a 34-year-old Sunni resident of Adhamiyah, one of the areas where the U.S. is putting up barriers. "Extremists from both sides—or mercenaries—will have no more qualms. . . . They will bomb each other to kingdom come."
U.S. officials acknowledged that the gated communities would wall sects off from one another, but they said they were a temporary measure. They're being built in consultation with Iraqi security forces and community leaders, officials said.
"Some of these enclaves will be more heavily ethnic in one respect, but the intent is to protect the population, not to form sectarian enclaves," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesman. "There's no long-term strategy to divide up the entire city."
Baghdad already is segregated beyond recognition, with Shiites and Sunnis huddling among their own in once-mixed neighborhoods, often relying for protection on whichever armed group dominates the area. Much of the city's devastating violence originates from these heavily militarized redoubts.
In Adhamiyah, a restive section of northern Baghdad, paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division last week began erecting a three-mile-long, 12-foot-high barrier around a Sunni enclave that's surrounded by predominantly Shiite neighborhoods. A single Iraqi army checkpoint now controls access into the Sunni area.
Commanders say that the wall and the presence of more U.S. and Iraqi troops will stop Shiite death squads from entering the neighborhood to kidnap or kill Sunnis, and keep Sunni militias from using it as a staging area for attacks into the surrounding Shiite areas.
Besides Adhamiyah, barriers are going up in Ghaziliyah, Khadra and Ameriyah in western Baghdad—all Sunni areas—and three are being built in the southern Rashid district in locations that officials didn't specify.
Military officials said it's only coincidence that so many of the enclaves are Sunni. Bleichwehl said that the decision to erect barriers rests with commanders in the field.
"Commanders will continually reassess how these things are working," Bleichwehl said. "Adjustments will be made."
The concept of walled-off communities has been used in previous counterinsurgency campaigns. In Northern Ireland, British forces divided Belfast between Catholics and Protestants. In Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO and United Nations forces used natural boundaries such as rivers and hills to split up rival ethnic groups.
Massive barriers are nothing new in Iraq either. The largest "gated community" without doubt is Baghdad's Green Zone, a four-square-mile area sealed off from the rest of the capital that is home to the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government buildings. Access is granted only to people with special passes. Sand barriers also have been erected around several Iraqi cities, including Fallujah, Samarra and Tal Afar.
But the limitations of those barriers have been revealed in spectacular ways. Last week, a suicide bomber slipped past the heavy security into the Green Zone and detonated a bomb in the parliament building, killing a lawmaker. Mortar rounds regularly fly over the walls.
At Samarra, the so-called berm failed to prevent the devastation more than a year ago of the Golden Dome Shiite shrine, whose bombing intensified Iraq's sectarian tensions. And Tal Afar recently descended into chaos when suspected Sunni insurgents detonated a car bomb in a Shiite neighborhood, killing as many as 150 people. Shiite mobs retaliated by dragging Sunnis from their homes and executing them in the streets.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said building walls could prove an efficient use of U.S. and Iraqi manpower in a sprawling city like Baghdad. But he warned that the walls could promote sectarianism.
"The fact the first . . . areas are all Sunni warns that gating has a natural tendency to further divide the city on sectarian lines," Cordesman wrote in a commentary Friday. "Both Ulster (Northern Ireland) and the Balkans have shown such an approach can bring added security, but that it can also polarize and freeze divisions within the population."
The plan's success also depends on controlling militia activity within the enclaves, Cordesman said. U.S. officials said the strategy would allow coalition forces to keep a close eye on checkpoints.
"This is not an intent to hold people in," Bleichwehl said. "This is an attempt to control access to a neighborhood, who comes in, what they bring in and to limit the number of entry points."
In Adhamiyah, soldiers from the 407th Brigade Support Battalion began erecting the wall in the early morning hours of April 11. They expect to have all the barriers in place by the end of the month. They have begun referring to "The Great Wall of Adhamiyah," but residents bitterly compare it to the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank.
"This I have seen before on the news—in Palestine," Ismail said. "They built a wall there, too. And there used to be another wall in Germany. That one got torn down."
Residents grumble about heavy gridlock at the lone checkpoint, which opens onto a highway. Cars line up in single file to enter and exit, often waiting for a half-hour or longer to be searched by security forces. Commutes to school and work have more than doubled in length.
Worst of all, Sunnis say they're cut off from their Shiite friends in nearby areas.
"Because of this, our Shiite friends and relatives can't come to our neighborhood because there is one gate and strangers are closely watched," said Safaa Mahmood, a 43-year-old engineer.
"This thing has isolated the neighborhood from the surrounding areas. I don't think that by such a thing, life will be better or safer."
Another wall has gone up in Ghaziliyah, believed to be a key staging area for Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida, based in neighboring Abu Ghraib. Three weeks ago, residents said U.S. troops began building a long wall separating the southern edge of Ghaziliyah from an unpopulated farming area owned by Sunni cronies of Saddam Hussein.
Saif al-Qaisi, a 35-year-old Sunni resident of Ghaziliyah, said the wall has brought benefits.
"One week ago the Iraqi army brought food rations for the first time in months," al-Qaisi said. "The situation is getting better day by day, but very slowly."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
A roundup of the day's violence in Iraq is posted every afternoon on the McClatchy Washington Bureau's Web site. Go to www.mcclatchydc.com and click on Iraq War Coverage.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.