Great Wall of Baghdad Separating Shiites and Sunnis – Security or Prison?

In a highly controversial move, the US military is constructing a 12-foot high, three-mile long wall surrounding the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya in Baghdad in an effort to curb sectarian attacks in one of the most violent flashpoints in the troubled capital.

Adhamiya sits in northern Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River, surrounded on three sides by previously mixed neighborhoods that have turned Shiite due to sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing which have caused hundreds of thousands of families to flee their homes. This process has transformed the entire east bank of the Tigris River into Shiite territory, apart from Adhamiya. About half the area on the west bank is now considered minority Sunni territory.

In this sense, the winding Tigris River can be seen as the great fault line between Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad’s sectarian divide.

Dubbed the ‘Great Wall of Baghdad’ by US troops, the wall has already attracted ominous comparisons to the barriers separating Catholics from Protestants in Belfast and Israelis from Palestinians in the West Bank.

The wall does seem to indicate a spiraling deterioration in the security situation in Baghdad, contradicting claims made by US President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week that the security plan supported by the US military surge in Baghdad is working.

Mr Bush has said in recent days that “the direction of the fight is beginning to shift” and that “so far the operation is meeting expectations”. Similarly, Prime Minister Maliki told Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson during an unannounced visit to Baghdad that “The security plan currently in action is going in the right direction despite the challenges.”

Yet the wall, which US forces began constructing under cover of darkness on April 10, has been renounced by furious residents of Adhamiya, who regard the move as an attempt to imprison them in a ghetto in Baghdad.

“This will make the whole district a prison. This is collective punishment on the residents of Adhamiya,” Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a 41-year-old Adhamiya engineer, told the Associated Press. “They are going to punish all of us because of a few terrorists here and there.”

Local community leaders insist that US troops began building the wall before they had been able to discuss it with the local residents, which seems to be a significant departure from the counterinsurgency strategy written by General David Patraeus, the US commander in Iraq. The centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy – which at the time of the general’s appointment was touted as the last hope for uniting US troops, Iraqi security forces and the local population against the Iraqi insurgency – emphasizes strong communication with local leaders and communities to build trust and partnerships.

“A few days ago, we met with the US army unit in charge of Adhamiya and it asked us, as a local council, to sign a document to build a wall to reduce killing and attacks against Iraqi and US forces,” Dawood al-Azami, the acting head of the Adhamiya council, told the Associated Press. “I told the soldiers that I would not sign it unless I could talk to residents first. We told residents at Friday prayers, but our local council hasn’t signed onto the project yet, and construction is already under way.”

Only Wednesday, US military spokesman Major-General William Caldwell denied that the US intended to construct a wall around Adhamiya. “Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves],” he told reporters. Yet in a separate statement released from Camp Victory, the US military confirmed: “The area the wall will protect is the largest predominately Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad. The wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence.”

Yet doubts have been raised that the wall will be able to protect the residents of Adhamiya from violence. On Thursday evening, Shiite insurgents fired six Katyusha rockets into Adhamiya as local Sunnis walked to evening prayers.

Opponents of the move say they fear that the wall will symbolize and institutionalize the bitter sectarian divide in Baghdad, making it more difficult to overcome in the longer term. Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, a government worker and local resident of Adhamiya, told The Guardian, “I don’t think this wall will solve the city’s serious security problems. It will only increase the separation between our people, which has been made so much worse by the war.”

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