Why Walls Don't Work in Baghdad

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Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

Residents walk past a concrete wall on a street in Adhamiya district in Baghdad April 22, 2007. The U.S. military is putting up concrete walls to protect five neighborhoods in Baghdad in a new strategy some residents said on Sunday would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions.

The walls the American military planned to erect in Baghdad seemed like a simple solution to a deadly problem: Sunni and Shi'ite enclaves would be physically separated, preventing each side's fighters from attacking the other's civilians. But simple solutions tend to fall apart when confronted with Iraq's complicated reality.

Walls, if they worked, might serve the overriding American interest of halting Baghdad's sectarian war long enough for the U.S. to declare victory and bring home its troops. But neither the Sunnis nor the Shi'ites want to halt the war — they want to win it. Barriers designed to lock in the status quo were bound to provoke opposition in both communities.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political organization, condemned the plan Sunday. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is heavily implicated in attacks on Sunni civilians, denounced the idea too. Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, followed suit Sunday and called for a halt to the construction of the barrier in the Adhamiya district, one of the last remaining Sunni enclaves in Shi'ite east Baghdad.

Sunnis have the more obvious cause for alarm. The Sunni residents of Adhamiya are already prisoners in their own neighborhood. Leaving the neighborhood necessitates traveling through Shi'ite territory, so few take the risk. Meanwhile access to basic goods and services is slowly being choked off as the area comes under frequent mortar attack. With this ancient Sunni community slowly being strangled to death, its residents were unlikely to rejoice at the prospect of being surrounded, "for their protection," by a 15-foot-high barrier of gray concrete slabs.

A wall is only as effective as the guards manning its gates, and Sunnis have every reason to mistrust the men who would hold the keys to their neighborhood. Several months ago, in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya, a series of smaller concrete barriers was supposed to separate Shi'ite militiamen in the north from Sunni insurgents in the south. But the access points were manned by unreliable members of the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi security forces. They allowed militiamen to pass through, attack Sunnis, and then flee north again. The checkpoints were mostly useful as a way to slow the pursuit of Sunni gunmen and guarantee Shi'ite killers a safe exit. When the Americans pulled Iraqi soldiers off the checkpoints, the attacks actually declined.

With examples like this in mind, it's no wonder that Sunnis are wary of a city-wide plan to isolate their communities behind walls erected by their enemies

But what's bad for the Sunnis isn't necessarily good for the Shi'ites, who have no interest in being constrained by arbitrary barriers erected by the Americans. They have the upper hand in Baghdad. They outnumber Sunnis and control the national government. They have a de facto ally in the United States, which has little choice but to support the "Iraqi Security Forces" even though those forces are often little more than Shi'ite militiamen in government uniforms.

The Americans claim that any security walls would be temporary, but Iraqis know that temporary walls have a way of becoming permanent. The analogy that springs to Iraqi minds is the Israeli barrier in the West Bank — justified as a security measure but viewed by Iraqis and other Arabs as a permanent seizure of territory. As the Shi'ite advance in Baghdad continues — slowed substantially but not halted by the American troop surge — the walled-away Sunni neighborhoods could just as well become U.S.-protected bastions, carved out of what, in Shi'a eyes, should be Shi'ite territory.

As Sadr pointed out, barriers can be used against Shi'ite neighborhoods as easily as Sunni ones. The Americans have persistently, if sometimes obliquely, laid the blame for sectarian violence at Sadr's doorstep. If the Americans begin unilaterally throwing up walls across Baghdad, Sadr will have to fear that sooner or later those walls will start closing in on him and his militia.

Shi'ites are unlikely to buy the American claim that these walls will make it harder for Sunni terrorists to continue their recent wave of car bombings. America lost its credibility on the security issue years ago, and no new strategy will reverse that. As a practical matter, too, it's hard to imagine a few walls would seriously hinder a bombing campaign as deadly as any seen in the city since 2004. Some car bombs are constructed inside Baghdad, but many more are made outside the city in Sunni areas where the Americans have only a small presence. It's simply not possible to protect all large Shi'ite population centers from all directions without draconian measures like daytime curfews and bans on all vehicle traffic.

Right now the fate of the walls is uncertain — U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Monday the U.S. would respect the wishes of Maliki and the Iraqi government, but stopped short of saying the plan would be scrapped. It's difficult to imagine, though, that the plan could proceed as intended without the support of Shi'ites or Sunnis. If these walls are erected in some form it will likely be the product of a disingenuous compromise, and they will stand as monuments to the Americans' inability to impose their will on Baghdad.