Iraqis should make barrier wall decision


Good fences make good neighbors, Robert Frost has his neighbor say in the famous poem, “Mending Wall.” But his own sentiment — this is poetry so it’s open to interpretation — seems to be rather contrary:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

Apparently most Iraqis want torn down a three-mile wall now being built in Baghdad around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, which is surrounded by Shia neighborhoods. But the sentiment is hardly universal, and there seems to have been little real coordination among various branches of the Iraqi government and the U.S. military.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at a meeting Sunday with Arab leaders in Cairo, said he disapproved of the 12-foot-high wall and would order it taken down. But Iraqi Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the prime minister had not been fully briefed on the issue. “We will continue to construct the security barriers, he said. “These are barriers that can be removed.”

Meanwhile Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said the U.S. military would “respect the wishes of the Iraqi government,” and Monday the U.S. military announced it had suspended construction. But U.S. military and diplomatic officials continued to defend the effort to turn Adhamiyah into a “gated community,” arguing that it would improve security for the neighborhood’s residents and make things more difficult for would-be terrorists.

It’s not hard to see at least two sides to this issue. From a strictly military standpoint, building a wall that would deter Shia death squads from penetrating into the Adhamiyah neighborhood and make it more difficult for Sunni insurgents to transport bombs from Adhamiyah into Shia neighborhoods, makes a good deal of sense.

The six-square-mile Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi parliament and most Iraqi politicians and U.S. officials are located, is surrounded by concrete barriers. Concrete barriers of various sizes block access to police stations, hotels, hospitals, political party offices and the homes of top officials. At least 10 Baghdad neighborhoods have become or are scheduled to become “gated communities,” as many U.S. soldiers have dubbed them.

Barriers make it easier to control who comes in and out of sensitive areas, or places that have experienced severe violence. In some communities the U.S. has been recording biometrics, like fingerprints and eye scans of those who live there, creating a rough-and-ready census and enhancing the ability to identify people who don’t belong or might be troublemakers.

On the other hand, such walls make it more inconvenient for ordinary people to get around on workaday errands, and, while some residents feel more secure, others feel like prisoners.

Both Shia and Sunni leaders have organized large demonstrations against the walls. The walls remind many Iraqis of the wall Israel is building around (and sometimes into) Palestinian territories, a wall most Arabs resent deeply.

The issue reflects the dilemma of an occupying army fighting an insurgency or guerrilla war in a foreign country. Everybody from unflinching war supporters to fierce war critics says the most important aspect of the struggle is political, that the Iraqi people must start to buy into the idea that differences can be settled without constant bloodshed. But it’s easier to acknowledge the political/social/cultural aspect of the struggle than it is to find ways to resolve such delicate and ethnically charged problems politically.

At the moment the decision to build the wall around Adhamiyah looks like a miscalculation, creating more political negatives than military positives — although that assessment could change. The way the issue has metastasized into a major source of conflict reflects poor communication both within the Iraqi government and between U.S. and Iraqi officials.

It all underlines the importance of picking up the pace of turning over increasing responsibility to Iraqis for such decisions. They may not always agree — indeed, they will often disagree — but it is their country.