Wed, Mar 09, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Baghdad neighborhood welcomes fall of US-erected blast wall

By Jack Healy  /  NY Times News Service, BAGHDAD

It is just one wall in a city of thousands — a line of anonymous gray blocks running, like a scar, through one of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods.

Built about three years ago to prevent attacks on passing military convoys, the 4.8km long blast wall in the sprawling Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City gradually took on a life of its own, becoming an emblem of people’s anger and despair at years of killing and military occupation.

The wall may have tightened security, but it also dammed off a pocket of merchants and barbershops, cloistering about 1,500 residents of one corner of Sadr City behind a concrete curtain. Stores closed. Houses were abandoned.

Over a mural of marshes, rivers and palm trees painted on the wall by US-financed Iraqi artists, residents spray-painted their own message: “Killing is the answer.”

However, recently a bulldozer and crane rumbled into the neighborhood and, with little fanfare, began a task that astonished the old men and children who gathered to watch from the sidewalk — they took away the wall.

“We called it our Berlin Wall,” said Saad Khalef, 41, as he surveyed the newly uncovered ground where the walls had stood, as crushed and pale as the skin beneath a bandage. “Now we can breathe easy. Yesterday, I felt a breeze coming through, I swear to God.”

RESTORING NORMALCY

Iraq’s government has been removing blast walls little by little since late 2008, trying to restore a semblance of normalcy to this bunker city of 6 million people.

The tentative approach of the Arab League’s annual meeting — postponed from this month until May because of the region’s instability — has prompted Iraq to increase its efforts as it prepares to play host. The government has uprooted many walls inside the heavily protected Green Zone and torn down sniper netting from highway overpasses, hoping to present a less martial capital for visiting leaders.

The walls are coming down along the eclectic Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad, with plans being developed to tear down others in Shiite neighborhoods in the city’s north.

“We’re so happy, from the bottom of my heart,” said a woman who gave her name as Um Qasim, or mother of Qasim, as she crossed the busy thoroughfare in Sadr City that had been bisected by the wall. “I hope that they’ll give orders to lift them all.”

There is little chance that will ever happen. Baghdad remains a maze of walls and attackers have exploited the government’s attempts to remove barriers near government offices or other high-value targets. In August 2009, huge truck bombs exploded outside the Foreign and Finance Ministries, killing scores of people in a spot that had once been protected by concrete barriers.

On Sunday, government officials in the northeastern province of Diyala announced that they would remove all the walls ringing residential neighborhoods and public markets and reopen roads that had been blockaded for three years. Security experts in the area responded warily, predicting more suicide attacks.

However, along Sadr City’s Gas Station Road, the dusty, prosaically named boulevard where the latest wall was being carted away, few people worried whether its removal would spur militant attacks. The neighborhood has come back to life in small and -surprising ways as violence faded and the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, loosened its grip somewhat.

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