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U.S. reconsidering plan to wall off Baghdad neighborhoods

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The future of a U.S. military plan to erect concrete walls around Baghdad neighborhoods was in doubt Monday amid a growing outcry from Iraqis who said the barriers would fuel sectarian discord.

A day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a halt to the construction of a 12-foot wall that would separate Sunni Muslims from Shiite Muslims in the northern Adhemiya neighborhood, American officials said they'd reconsider plans for that barrier and several others in Baghdad. But they dodged questions over whether the construction would stop, and an Iraqi military official said it would continue.

"Obviously, we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said. "I'm not sure just where we are right now concerning our discussions on how to move forward on this particular issue."

As hundreds of residents marched through Adhemiya's walled-off streets to protest what they called the "racist barrier," American officials defended the plan as a temporary measure that would help secure sectarian flash points and deter suicide car bombings.

Those bombings have been unrelenting despite a 10-week security crackdown in the city.

On Monday, nine U.S. soldiers died when a suicide car bomber detonated near a patrol base in Diyala province. Twenty soldiers and one Iraqi civilian were injured, the U.S. military said.

At least 33 Iraqis were killed in bombings throughout the country.

Of the barriers, Crocker said, "It is in no one's intention or thinking that this is going to be a permanent state of affairs."

An Iraqi military spokesman downplayed Maliki's criticism, saying that the prime minister, who was attending a summit of Arab leaders in Egypt, was responding to exaggerated news reports.

"We will continue constructing the barriers in all Baghdad areas without exemption," Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta said.

Privately, American officials admitted that they were caught off-guard by the firestorm over the three-mile-long Adhemiya wall, whose details were made public in a military news release last week.

Dubbed by troops the "Great Wall of Adhemiya," the project is one of at least seven barriers that are being built under a so-called "gated communities" initiative that's intended to separate rival factions and control the flow of traffic in certain neighborhoods. Military officials say the barriers will be in a variety of forms: Some are long walls that don't fully enclose neighborhoods and others are an amalgam of barbed wire, sand bags and concrete blast walls.

Adhemiya, a Sunni insurgent stronghold ringed by Shiite-controlled areas, long has been considered one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad. Military commanders hoped that by walling off the Sunni enclave and forcing traffic to pass through a single checkpoint, Shiite militias wouldn't be able to come in to kidnap or kill residents and Sunni suicide bombers couldn't use the area as a base.

The project succeeded in bringing Sunnis and Shiites together, but only in opposition. Many Iraqis have compared it to the wall that separates Israeli and Palestinian territory in the West Bank, an issue that has particular resonance for Arabs.

"The wall is not the solution that we need. We shouldn't be like other countries that build walls to separate its citizens," said Shatha al-Razakh, a Sunni lawmaker and a member of the legislature's human rights committee.

"Iraqi sovereignty requires that we follow (Maliki's) order and stop the construction of this wall," said Nassar al-Rubaie, a Shiite lawmaker who's close to the powerful anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

It wasn't clear whether Maliki intended to press for a halt to construction. U.S. officials suggested that the prime minister may not have been fully briefed on the plan.

"Discussions that happened at a lower level may not have been transmitted to the higher level," said Lt. Col. Chris Garver, an American military spokesman.

U.S. officials, nevertheless, appeared to backtrack from earlier statements that referred to the Adhemiya wall as "one of the centerpieces of a new strategy" in Baghdad.

Last week, military spokesmen said the decisions to build barriers rested with American commanders in the field, who were instructed to consult Iraqi security forces and residents. On Monday, U.S. officials said Iraqis were taking the lead and that coalition forces would work together to resolve residents' concerns.

"To the extent that local concerns weren't addressed, we'll now take that into account," said Rear Adm. Mark Fox, an American military spokesman.

Elsewhere, Iraqi television reported that a suicide bomber had killed 19 people and injured about two dozen near a restaurant outside Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. It was the most significant attack in several weeks in the area, which U.S. military officials have been touting as an example of improved security.

In Baghdad, two car-bomb attacks targeted the Iranian Embassy outside the heavily fortified Green Zone. One person was killed and six were injured.

Suicide car bombers also struck in eastern Diyala province, killing four and injuring 25, and in the northern town of Tal Asqef, killing eight and injuring seven at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

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A roundup of Iraq violence is posted daily on the McClatchy Washington Bureau's Web site, at www.mcclatchydc.com. Click on "Iraq War Coverage."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Jenan Hussein, Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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