Making Sand Castles In Baghdad

At first glance, I thought I was reading a satirical piece.  As first reported yesterday in StarsandStripes:

 A U.S. military brigade is constructing a 3-mile-long concrete wall to cut off one of the capital’s most restive Sunni Arab districts from the Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that surround it, raising concern about the further Balkanization of Iraq’s most populous and violent city.

U.S. commanders in northern Baghdad said the 12-foot-high barrier would make it more difficult for suicide bombers to strike and for death squads and militia fighters from sectarian factions to attack one another and then slip back to their home turf. Construction began April 10 and is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

As it turns out, this isn’t satire, it’s real. 

Of course I have the obvious questions:

  • Who’s paying for it?
  • Will it work?
  • Is it worth it?

Obviously, we’re paying for it.  Our military is constructing it, so we’re surely paying for the labor, and common sense tells us that we’re paying for the materials, too. 

Will it work?  Highly doubtful.  The wall around “The Green Zone” has been there for some time, and yet a bomb was still smuggled into the Iraqi Parliament.  Think of it this way: suppose some terrorist had managed to smuggle a bomb into our own Congress–the equivalent reaction here would be to build a wall around a few blocks of D.C.’s residential sections.  That would never happen if the residents didn’t want it.  And in fact, the local Iraqis don’t want this wall:

“Are they trying to divide us into different sectarian cantons?” said a Sunni drugstore owner in Adhamiya, who would identify himself only as Abu Ahmed, 44. “This will deepen the sectarian strife and only serve to abort efforts aimed at reconciliation.” 

Add to that the fact that so-called “gated communities”–which this is intended to be–have not proven any safer than non-gated communities:

Police in all the areas where the authors conducted focus groups reported at best marginal differences in crime between gated and ungated developments. Most found no difference; crime rates varied by area but not between gated and ungated neighborhoods in the same area. A few even believed they hampered police efforts, because gates slowed response time, walls blocked sight lines, and residents gained a false sense of security, leading them to leave garage doors open and doors and windows unlocked.

And yes, for those who will try to make a distinction, this is intended to create a “gated community.”  It is a community surrounded by a wall with a gate, and as the LAtimes reports

Pentagon officials first broached the idea of creating “gated communities” in Baghdad this year. 

Interestingly enough, that’s not quite what Stars&Stripes is reporting:

U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the top spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, was quoted as saying Wednesday that he was unaware of any effort to build a wall dividing Shiite and Sunni enclaves in Baghdad and that such a tactic was not a policy of the Baghdad security plan.

“We have no intent to build gated communities in Baghdad,” Stars and Stripes, the U.S. Department of Defense-authorized daily newspaper, quoted Caldwell as saying. “Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate (enclaves).”

Uh-huh.  Sorry, I’m not buying it.  If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck. 

Add to all of this the fact that customers and businesses on different sides of the wall will be cut off, and we have the added effect of hampering the capitalist aspect of the fledgling democracy we’re trying to foster.  That seems at least a little counterproductive, no?

Adhamiya has been called “the worst place in Baghdad,” and it’s understandable that our forces try to do all they can to minimize the sectarian violence.  But at some point the Iraqis must take it upon themselves to make the violence stop.  One of the requirements for a thriving democracy is an educated populace that wants to take part in the democracy.  This wall isn’t going to advance that hope one little bit

“I don’t think this wall will solve the city’s serious security problems,” said Ahmed Abdul-Sattar, 35, a government worker. “It will only increase the separation between our people, which has been made so much worse by the war.”

And then, of course, there’s the prospect of what happens when we eventually leave Iraq.  Who will man the gun towers on this wall?  Do we really want to leave a smattering of fortressed cities–life-sized sand castles–that could be overtaken by radical groups and easily turned into fiefdoms? 

Does that sound like a “Secure Middle-East” to you?


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