Frustration Over Wall Unites Sunni And Shiite

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
April 24, 2007
By Alissa J. Rubin
BAGHDAD, April 23 — The unexpected outcry about the proposed construction of a wall around a Sunni Arab neighborhood has revealed the depths of Iraqi frustration with the petty humiliations created by the new security plan intended to protect them.
American and some Iraqi officials were clearly taken aback by the ferocity of the opposition to the wall, and on Monday the United States was showing signs of backing away from the plan. The strong reaction underscores the sense of powerlessness Iraqis feel in the face of the American military, whose presence is all the more pervasive as an increasing number of troops move on to the city’s streets.
And it has proved to be an unlikely boon for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, making the Shiite politician — at least for now — into a champion for Sunnis because he publicly opposed the wall’s construction.
At a rally on Monday, residents of the Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiya pledged support for Mr. Maliki because of his declaration on Sunday in Cairo that construction of the wall around their neighborhood must stop. Their endorsement was all the more telling because many Sunnis see Mr. Maliki as the representative of a government bent on Sunni oppression.
“My view of Maliki has changed since I heard of this news, and we hope he would be able to carry out this decision,” to stop the wall’s construction, said Um Mohammed, a teacher in Adhamiya.
“We denounce the building of the wall, which will increase the sectarian rift,” she said as she stood with more than 1,000 neighborhood residents at the peaceful protest.
By late in the day, the American military, under pressure from the Iraqi government, appeared to be rethinking the plan. “This one was obviously one in which the people in the area expressed some concern,” said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. “There are aspects of this that the Iraqi government feels at this point are not productive. We’ll continue to work with them on this and other tactics,” he said.
Although the strategy of using barriers to safeguard areas of Baghdad is not new, the Adhamiya plan to enclose the neighborhood entirely was promoted as an advanced security measure. About two years ago, the American military erected a wall along the section of the Amiriya neighborhood that borders the airport road. While hardly foolproof, it reduced the number of attacks on American convoys on the route. More recently, the military has erected walls around marketplaces to safeguard them from suicide bombers, said Brig. Gen. John F. Campbell, Baghdad’s deputy commanding general, in a statement released Saturday when questions began to emerge about the plan.
But the Adhamiya wall, only partly built, has fast become a metaphor for the cumulative resentment that Iraqis feel about the violence and disruption of daily life that have brought so much misery to the country since the American invasion in 2003.
The latest indignity is the new security plan, which has snarled traffic with checkpoints that turn even the shortest journeys into hourlong forays. And to the chagrin of many Iraqis, even after four years, the Americans still seem to be oblivious of the havoc they cause in Iraqis’ daily lives by forcing traffic to stop, blocking roads and taking property for military outposts.
Iraqis feel demeaned and infuriated when they find themselves sitting in traffic for hours as it trickles through checkpoints or standing in lines in the already blazing spring sun waiting to be frisked to get into government buildings.
A man who had waited in line for more than two hours to get into the fortified International Zone, formerly known as the Green Zone, on Monday said no one explained the reason for the delay to the nearly 200 people standing there. “Why, why? What did I do?” he said to no one in particular, as a soldier who had briefly appeared near the front of the line walked away.
On the outskirts of Adhamiya on Monday afternoon, a line of cars stretched for more than half a mile, waiting to go through an Iraqi Army checkpoint to enter the neighborhood. The line of some 200 cars was moving so slowly that some drivers had gotten out and were gesticulating and shouting in frustration.
Although the decision to use tall concrete barriers to cordon off the neighborhood was made jointly by Iraqi and American forces, American soldiers are building the Adhamiya wall, according to neighborhood residents and a news release issued by the United States military. The wall is made of concrete slabs weighing 14,000 pounds each, which, when set next to each other, form a solid barrier. Cranes are used to winch them into position.
Mr. Maliki’s decision to speak out against the wall was read on the streets as a moment of defiant Iraqi sovereignty in the face of the Americans, whom the vast majority of Iraqis view as an occupying force. Despite his government’s backing of the overall security plan, Mr. Maliki has managed to appear to be a defender of the interests of the common citizen.
Sameer al-Obeidi, the imam of the Abu Khanifa mosque, one of the most influential Sunni Arab mosques in the city, applauded Mr. Maliki. “We shake hands with the government in such stands,” he said.
The American involvement in the wall’s construction has united Iraqis of different sects. Sunni political parties, as well as some Shiite groups, strongly oppose the wall. Shiite groups fear that though Sunni Arab neighborhoods are the ones being cordoned off this week, next month it could be Shiite areas as well.
There was still confusion on Monday over whether construction on the wall would proceed. Despite Mr. Maliki’s declaration during his visit to Cairo on Sunday that construction would be halted, the chief Iraqi military spokesman said that there was no change in the plans to build the 12-foot barrier.
“We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Adhamiya neighborhood. This is a technical issue,” Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said.
Reporting was contributed by Iraqi employees of The New York Times in Baghdad, Mosul, Diyala, Falluja and Hilla, and David S. Cloud in Washington.