Behind The Baghdad Wall

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Ali Yussef / AFP / Getty

An Iraqi woman walks past a three-mile-long concrete wall around Baghdad's Sunni enclave of Adhamiyah, April 24, 2007. A similar wall is being constructed in Ghazaliya.

Iraqi politicians of all stripe may have protested, but the wall around the Baghdad neighborhood of Ghazaliya has gone up anyway. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers have ringed the southern part of the neighborhood with concrete barriers, a move that has improved security but also prompted fears among local Sunnis that they are being ghettoized.

Last month, the U.S. Army began constructing some 2.5 miles of concrete barriers around southern Ghazaliya. The area, a Sunni insurgent stronghold, is notorious for relentless attacks on American and Iraqi soldiers, and for the execution of civilians who cross the insurgency. Since the barriers went up — limiting movement in and out of the area to two checkpoints, one on the east and the other on the west side of the area — violence has declined dramatically.

According to Capt. Jon Brooks, who recently took command of the U.S. unit responsible for south Ghazaliya, the number of civilian bodies dumped in the neighborhood has declined by more than 50% since the barriers went up. An Iraqi who lives in Ghazaliya and reports for TIME agreed that local violence — from kidnappings and killings to sectarian clashes — has been curtailed by the wall.

It's less clear, however, whether the decline in violence is due to the wall itself, or to the huge increase in the number of U.S. soldiers living and patrolling in Ghazaliya. For American troops, the clearest indication that the wall is frustrating the insurgents was the fact that they tried to destroy it, in a multiple bombing on April 29 that blew apart several of the large concrete slabs. U.S. forces repaired the damage the following day.

"At first I attributed [the decline in violence] to the American presence and the Iraqi presence," said Capt. Matthew Koehler, 30, who works with the American team advising the Iraqi Army unit that patrols south Ghazaliya. "I thought that was the extent of it, until I saw the insurgents trying to blow up those barriers."

But insurgents aren't the only ones trying to bypass the walls. Local civilians have also dragged the barriers aside just to ease access to their own neighborhood. The U.S. has tried to accommodate residents' desire for normalcy by modifying the barrier to provide easier access to a local school. They're also trying to make it easier to reach a gas station that lies on the wrong side of the wall. But, while the barriers can be modified, it is not possible to so severely limit movement in and out of Ghazaliya without harming the neighborhood's already devastated economy.

"It is almost literally a 50-50 split of people who love 'em and people who hate 'em," said 1st Lt. Matthew Holtzendorff, 36, who commands a platoon in the neighborhood. "It's a mixed blessing, I guess. You have to ask the question, 'Do I want to stay alive and stay safe or do I want to make money?'"

But while Sunni civilians inside the walled-off area lament the inconvenience and the effect on the local economy, their greatest fear is for the long-term survival of their community. They worry that the wall isn't about security at all, but is rather an effort to fence them in while Shi’ite militia clear the rest of the neighborhood of its Sunni residents.

On a recent foot patrol in south Ghazaliya at least two Sunnis who spoke with American soldiers said they had recently moved from Huriya. That neighborhood north of Ghazaliya is dominated by the Mahdi Army, Moqtada Sadr's Shi’ite militia that has been pushing Sunnis out of their homes in Baghdad. Those refugees, like other Sunnis in Ghazaliya, said they welcomed the American presence but did not trust the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi Army. The wall is only as effective — and as fair — as the men guarding it. Sunnis must now pass through Iraqi Army checkpoints on their way in and out of their neighborhood, and they say they fear harassment, or worse.

While the Americans in Ghazaliya have managed to defy Iraqi politicians' objections by building a wall, they cannot alter the fundamental dynamic of sectarian conflict. Still, whatever happens when Americans leave Ghazaliya, for now the wall seems to be serving its purpose. "Whether the Iraqis take them down when we leave, that's on them," Holtzendorff said. "I don't foresee us taking it down."