Controversial wall rises around Baghdad
BAGHDAD - Iraq’s Shia-led government said the concrete-and-trench barrier it is building around Baghdad will thwart infiltration by the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militants and block the smuggling of car bombs into the city.
For the rival Sunni minority, however, which already feels ostracised by successive Iraqi governments, the wall means isolating them further and possibly forcing them out of Shia communities to districts outside Baghdad.
Observers say the 3-metre-high wall, with monitoring cameras and trenches as deep as 5 metres around some Baghdad suburbs, is part of a plan to divide Iraq into three parts: the already autonomous north for the Kurds, the centre for the Sunnis and Baghdad and the south and east for the Shias.
“This is yet the clearest sign that Iraq’s division is looming,” observed Yousef Radhi, a retired professor of political science at the University of Mosul.
Saad al-Mutalibi, a member of the security committee in Baghdad’s Provincial Council, said construction of the wall began in early February.
“The project aims at reducing the terrorist attacks against our people and security forces inside Baghdad,” Mutalibi said.
He declined to comment on Sunni fears and political ramifications of the move.
Sunnis expressed concern that the true objective of the barrier, called the “Baghdad belt” or the “security wall”, is to isolate Sunni areas in and around Baghdad and to make the capital’s demographics purely Shia.
A security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the main construction would be concluded within months in the northern, western and southern areas of Baghdad, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Sunni.
News of the wall drew an outcry from Sunnis, whom the central government in Baghdad has been keeping at an arm’s length on grounds that many of them were insurgents or members of the disbanded Iraqi Ba’ath Socialist Party of fallen dictator Saddam Hussein.
A Sunni political coalition known as the United Sunni Groups rejected the concept of the wall, describing it in a statement as an attempt to “reshape Iraq and divide it according to sectarian lines”.
To achieve that objective, the Iraqi government will annex territory from the western desert region of Anbar and Sunni areas south of Baghdad to enlarge the capital and Babil province in central Iraq.
Since Saddam’s 2003 overthrow, Shia groups have been increasingly calling for “reshaping the boundaries” of some provinces. One example is the vast desert area of Nakhib, currently part of Sunni Anbar province. Some Shia groups claim Nakhib was originally part of Karbala province but it was added to Anbar during Saddam’s era. Karbala authorities want it back.
After ISIS made significant gains in Anbar in June 2014, Shia militias moved to the area despite objections by the Anbar government. Shia militias claimed that their presence in Nakhib was important to defend the sacred Shia city of Karbala and ignored calls to leave the area.
Shia militias recaptured a small Sunni town just south of Baghdad from ISIS in 2015. However, militias refused to let Sunni residents back into their homes in Jurf al-Sakhar, arguing that the town could pose a significant risk to Shia pilgrims to Karbala because it lies on the Baghdad-Karbala highway.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi tried to quell Sunni concerns about the wall with a statement saying that Baghdad is “the capital of all Iraqis and no wall nor fence can isolate it or prevent other citizens from entering it”.
He emphasised that the sole goal of the new security measures was to “protect the people from the criminal attacks against them”.
Mutalibi said the barrier will stretch about 100km in the first phase and that the wall will be partially made of concrete barriers already in use across Baghdad.
Unpaved roads, which are usually not monitored, leading to the capital, have been blocked as part of the new measures, Mutalibi said. He declined to give the time expected to finish the project.
“In some places, there will be a wall and in other places there will be a trench, depending on the geographical nature of the land,” he said.
Sunni complaints about marginalisation increased since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003 and handed power to the long-oppressed Iraqi Shia majority.
Anger has since fuelled an insurgency led by Sunni militants. Shia officials repeatedly say that attacks in Baghdad are carried out by militants, who find refuge among Sunnis in areas encircling the capital.
Baghdad Sunni resident Ahmed Abdul-Qadir argued that most of the car bombs are made inside Baghdad and assassinations and kidnappings are carried out by Shia militias.
“It is another futile security measure that will fail to protect the people, just like any previous one,” Abdul-Qadir said. “People will continue to die because of the unqualified security commanders.”
Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker from Anbar, said that with the latest ISIS defeats, the need for the wall seems to have lessened. He maintained, however, that all previous security measures have failed to end the violence.
“The only solution to stop the bloodshed in Iraq is to achieve justice and to end sectarianism and ethnic discrimination in the country,” he said.