Dan Read / Days of our Lives & Patrick Cockbrn / CounterPunch.com – 2007-07-05 22:44:38
“Prison City: The New Walls of Baghdad ”
Dan Read / Days of our Lives
(July 4, 2007) — In 2003, the combined forces of the UK/US coalition stormed into Iraq, unleashing perhaps the most profound political and humanitarian crisis of our time. Four years later, the war to reassert Anglo/American dominance in the Middle East has become a brutal conflict with mounting casualties, sectarian violence, and religious and ethnic unrest.
Unwilling to admit defeat, the occupation forces have developed a strategy to seal off entire Baghdad communities with the construction of dividing walls interspaced with entry points guarded by heavily armed soldiers.
Baghdad now takes the place of honor as the most dangerous city in the world. Few days in the violent city go by without the sounds of gunfire from either Islamist militias or occupation forces. Life in the war torn metropolis has become a veritable nightmare for its residents, who must endure not only the physical danger of American bullets and sectarian suicide bombers, but also the insecurity wrought from a devastated economy.
The occupation, for all its talk of liberty and freedom, dictates it wishes through the barrel of a gun, and has not equated its plans for reconstruction with anything advancing workers rights or trade unions; a staggering sixty percent of the national workforce is suffering from unemployment.
On top of the violence, misery, and escalating poverty, there is another malady that has risen up to strike at this war-weary populace. The invasion and occupation has effectively destroyed Iraq’s national identity — if a country artificially created from old provinces of a disbanded empire could be said to have one — and unleashed all manner of ethnic and religious tensions.
We now witness the destruction of the very identity that may at one time have sealed the country together, albeit it through fear and coercion. Rival militias dominate the streets, claiming allegiance to various religious figures, and yet all identifying as either Sunni or Shia. It’s this division between Iraqis — muted under Saddams rule — which has stirred embers to a raging inferno under the blundering care of the US military.
The Great Wall of Adhamiya
Recently the occupation authorities have taken a page out of the book of the British army in Northern Ireland or the Israeli Defense Forces in Palestine by building a twelve foot high three mile long dividing wall around the Sunni district of Adhamiya. Already nicknamed the “Great Wall of Adhamiya” by United States soldiers, its alleged intention, just like the “peace walls” of Belfast and Israel’s own “separation barrier”: to curtail inter-communal violence.
Adhamiya has been chosen as the location for encirclement due to its status as a focal point for Sunni Muslims, some of whom allegedly initiate violence against their Shiite neighbors and vice versa. In the long run it’s hoped the wall will be extended to create “gated communities” where residents can only come in and out via heavily guarded exit points staffed by soldiers of the Iraqi government.
Apparently this would lead to a general reduction in the currently terminal levels of violence in the city, although the wall has had to endure a veritable bombardment of criticism from those in the local community.
It’s widely feared that those living within the enclosed community will be forced to endure humiliating searches whenever they wished to travel outside of the confined area, effectively creating a prison-like atmosphere.
This has led many people to worry that the occupation authorities have further plans to fortify the city, effectively turning it into an enclosed camp. But while to some this may seem to be a small price to pay for increased security, the hypocrisy of the American and British forces is undeniable considering their role in the creation of wide scale communal and civil strife from the start of the conflict.
Indeed, one Adhamiya resident, who was interviewed by the BBC, had no illusions about the situation, stating that “They’re telling us the wall is to protect us from the Shia militia and they’re telling the Shia they’re protecting them from us. But it’s the Americans who started all the sectarian violence in the first place.”
With building work having begun on April 10th and only undertaken at night for security reasons, it seems the purpose of the wall is being constantly reaffirmed with the presence of armed soldiers and armored fighting vehicles guarding the construction.
However, as is a sign of the times, the occupation forces have shown willingness to mimic the politicians at home with all manner of double speak and contradictory statements. While now publicly defending the wall, initially US spokesmen on the ground claimed that they had no plans to fortify the city, with Major General William Caldwell stating that “We have no intent to build gated communities in Baghdad. Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves].”
As is common practice since their arrival in Iraq in 2003, the US army has not consulted the local population about the matter. Construction began before the local Adhamiya council had even had time to draft a statement regarding the work, leaving many locals frustrated and perturbed. Such tactless behavior on the part of the US forces is unlikely to win many friends, but it goes without saying that foreign armies in occupied countries often hold little regard for the wishes of the native population.
But opposition is by no means confined to local politicians and community leaders. On the 23rd of April Iraq’s own Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ordered a halt to the construction work. But while US authorities responded by saying they would initiate a general review of the project, they soon made it known at a press conference that the work would continue regardless of the wishes of the government or the people directly affected.
Additional information was released regarding further construction of “temporary” barriers across Baghdad made up of sandbag walls, barbed wire, and trenches.
Since then there have been wide scale street protests from residents clearly opposed to the wall and the division it represents. However, these demonstrations of popular will – one of which consisted of around seven thousand people – were overshadowed by US military demands issued via loudspeaker for the demonstrators to return to their homes and not violate curfew. Fortunately, the protestors have so far proved difficult to intimidate, and the march went ahead without further trouble.
Yet there is little more Iraqis can do as residents of a nation where the rule of law is only the rule of the gun. Progressive forces within the country – be they feminists, secularists or trade unionists – find their struggle stifled by the continuous warfare and the unwelcome attentions of both the militias and the occupation forces.
The effective encircling of Adhamiya, which lies outside the already heavily fortified “Green zone”, will only serve to remind Iraqis of their status as a conquered people, people who in effect have no power over their lives in a situation that is already being called a civil war.
“We’ll be Like the Palestinians!”
Sunnis Protest Baghdad’s “Prison Wall””
Patrick Cockbrn / CounterPunch.com
(April 24, 2007) — Residents of a Sunni enclave of Baghdad demonstrated and shouted slogans yesterday against a newly built wall sealing off their neighborhood from the rest of the city.
About 2,000 people marched through al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad carrying banners saying that their district was being turned into “a big prison.”
There was confusion as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said that the building of the wall must stop while the spokesman for the US-led security crackdown asserted that “construction of security barriers across Baghdad will continue without exception”.
Inside al-Adhamiyah, the three-mile long wall under construction around the area was being compared with the walls built by Israel to surround and control Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank.
“Adhamiyah will be isolated from all other areas,” said one man in a cafe in the district. “We’ll be like the Palestinians and we will not accept that.”
The US military in Baghdad says it is constructing the 12ft high walls to create so-called “gated communities” in five different districts in Baghdad to protect them from sectarian attack.
But the Sunni see the walls as being primarily directed against insurgents, just as the French army walled off the Casbah in Algiers during the Algerian war in the 1950s and early 1960s to prevent anti-French fighters moving through the city. Sunnis in Baghdad are worried that the soldiers or police at the entrances to sealed off districts will be Shia soldiers and police who may detain anybody.
In many cases in the past, young men of military age have been routinely detained, tortured and their bodies found later. In al-Khadra district in west Baghdad one resident told The Independent: “My area is blocked off completely by heaps of dirt and rubbish and there is only one way in and out for vehicles. This is controlled by the security forces but nobody knows who they really are.”
The newly appointed American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, said the US military “would respect” the wishes of the Iraqi government after Mr Maliki said construction of the wall must halt.
But an Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier Gen eral Qassim al-Moussawi, said the Prime Minister was reacting to exaggerated accounts of what was happening. “We expected this reaction by some weak-minded people,” he said. “The aim of these barriers is to protect civilians and guarantee that security forces are in control and prevent terrorists from moving between areas.”
The US seems to have underestimated the hostility towards the new walls. “There are other methods to protect neighborhoods,” said Mr Maliki during a press conference in Cairo. “This wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I’ve ordered it to stop.” The walls he was referring to were undoubtedly those dividing Jerusalem and the West Bank, which often feature on Arabic television.
There seems little doubt that Sunnis in districts of Baghdad being isolated by the walls do not see them as designed for their own protection. Banners carried by demonstrators yesterday proclaimed, “Separation is a big prison for al-Adhamiyah citizens” and “Children in al-Adhamiyah want a Baghdad without walls”.
People in al-Adhamiyah say they fear that, contrary to US and Iraqi army expectations, their district will become a fortress ruled by al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Extreme Sunni groups are allegedly already killing men who wear shorts or smoke or listen to music in public. A wall is also useless in preventing rockets or mortars being fired into the area.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq gunmen ordered 23 members of the ancient Yazidi sect off a bus, lined them up against a wall and shot them.
The killings were the latest development in a bloody dispute that began several months ago when a Yazidi woman converted to Islam and ran off with a man. She was later stoned to death by her disapproving relatives. The Yazidis, who number some 325,000, speak Kurdish and live east and west of Mosul.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.
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