Building a wall in Baghdad instead of policy in Iraq
Copyright by The Boston Globe
Published: April 25, 2007
To a military commander trying to make peace amid a civil war in Iraq, building walls to keep rival populations apart might look like a simple way to save lives.
Areas of Baghdad that were once home to both Sunnis and Shiites are being ethnically cleansed, and militants from each sect have attacked areas populated by the other, maiming and killing by the dozens. When American forces began building a 12-foot-high concrete wall last week around Adhamiya, a largely Sunni neighborhood, the goal was to prevent such incursions. A U.S. military news release heralded such barriers as "one of the centerpieces" of a new strategy to end sectarian violence.
American officials took to describing cordoned-off areas as "gated communities" - as if Adhamiya were a patch of Sun Belt suburbia that somehow found itself in a war zone.
In reality, the wall around the neighborhood is a symbol of the incoherence of the Bush administration's current policy toward ending ethnic violence in Iraq.
The purpose of the present security plan, which includes an ostensibly temporary surge in American troop numbers, is to quell Sunni-Shiite tensions long enough to buy time for a political settlement that preserves Iraq as a single functioning state. But as the killings continue, a political consensus among (and within) warring groups appears distant.
Even if walls hamper sectarian killing in the short term, what about the long term? Would Adhamiya be walled off forever? When American forces start to leave when the surge ends, would the Sunni enclave remain? Or would neighborhood residents merely be sitting ducks?
Walls have their uses. The Berlin Wall closed off a means of escape for East Germans who sought their freedom from Communism. But its construction also cooled a political crisis in Central Europe that could have escalated.
More recently, the barrier that Israel has put up in the West Bank - a wall in some places, a fence in others - has been credited with a significant decline in suicide bombings in Israel since 2002. That reduction, however, has come at an awful price for Palestinians cut off from economic opportunity.
A wall is final: It declares that reconciliation is no longer possible - that a society has grievous wounds that will never heal.
Perhaps this will not be Iraq's fate. The wall in Adhamiya has alarmed the Sunnis whom it was meant to protect. Iraq's Shiite prime minister has ordered a halt to construction. An American general has now disavowed the notion that walls lie at the heart of the security strategy.
Yet Iraq's disintegration continues. When military officials started building the wall, they implicitly acknowledged that the chasm between Sunni and Shiite is widening in Iraq. President George W. Bush has yet to accept that reality - and recognize that his policy needs to change accordingly.