Sun, Oct 19, 2003 - Page 7 News List

US fortifications riling Baghdadis

PROTECTION Rocked by a spate of deadly suicide bombings, the US-led coalition has thrown up concrete barriers all over the Iraqi capital

AFP , BAGHDAD

Rocked by a spate of deadly suicide bombings, the US-led coalition has thrown up concrete fortifications all over the Iraqi capital, infuriating Baghdadis who say they feel as though they are living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"Welcome to the West Bank on the Tigris," has become the standard greeting for visitors to central Baghdad's Al-Tashree neighborhood, which has been completely fenced in by the US forces who have their headquarters nearby.

A narrow corridor between concrete barriers leads into the neighborhood, at the entrance to which sits a US Abrams tank, where the American troops have set up a checkpoint.

Cars and pedestrians are thoroughly searched by an Iraqi police officer, under the watchful eye of a young American soldier whose hands seldom leave his assault rifle.

An eerie silence hangs over the 5km2 enclave, sealed off by 3m-high and 50cm-thick concrete walls.

The Americans erected the barrier after setting up their headquarters in the nearby palace, used by former president Saddam Hussein before his April 9 ouster.

"First it was concrete blocks, and then the barrier grew at the same time as the number of attacks increased. Since the attack on the UN offices, the wall surrounds us," says Uday Walid, referring to the August 19 car bombing that killed UN top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.

Walid, a 22-year-old engineer who has lived near the palace since 1987, says he had "never experienced these kinds of restrictions, even under the bloody dictator."

Here, the curfew lasts from 9:00pm to 6:00am, compared to between midnight and 4:00am in the rest of the Iraqi capital.

"There's no more social life, and going to work or school is a daily challenge," says Walid.

At the Al-Quadessiyah primary school, barely half the teachers and pupils show up for classes.

"On days when there are demonstrations in front of the palace gates, soldiers forbid us from entering or leaving the neighborhood," says Umm Saleh, 49.

As her husband waited an hour to drive through the military checkpoint, Saleh and her 18-year-old daughter, Dina, opted to save time and walk the kilometer (half mile) home.

"We are held captive. The Israelis surround Palestinians by a wall in the West Bank. Their mentors, the Americans, do the same in Baghdad," she says.

"Even workers won't venture out here. There has been no garbage collection or draining of septic tanks since September," she adds, pointing to heaps of garbage in the street.

Walls dot the Baghdad landscape -- outside hotels, embassies and political party offices.

Many residents believe these measures draw attention rather than reduce the security risk. They also complain that the walls are bad for business.

"Business has fallen 50 percent; the measures bother our clients and partners and prevent deliveries in front of our stores," says Mohammed Ali al-Kinani, manager of Bahrain, a plastic wares company.

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