Prison City: The New Walls of Baghdad

In 2003, the combined forces of the UK/US coalition stormed into Iraq, unleashing perhaps the most profound political and humanitarian crisis of our time. Four years later, the war to reassert Anglo/American dominance in the Middle East has become a brutal conflict with mounting casualties, sectarian violence, and religious and ethnic unrest. Unwilling to admit defeat, the occupation forces have developed a strategy to seal off entire Baghdad communities with the construction of dividing walls interspaced with entry points guarded by heavily armed soldiers.

Baghdad now takes the place of honor as the most dangerous city in the world. Few days in the violent city go by without the sounds of gunfire from either Islamist militias or occupation forces. Life in the war torn metropolis has become a veritable nightmare for its residents, who must endure not only the physical danger of American bullets and sectarian suicide bombers, but also the insecurity wrought from a devastated economy. 

The occupation, for all its talk of liberty and freedom, dictates it wishes through the barrel of a gun, and has not equated its plans for reconstruction with anything advancing workers rights or trade unions; a staggering sixty percent of the national workforce is suffering from unemployment.

On top of the violence, misery, and escalating poverty, there is another malady that has risen up to strike at this war-weary populace. The invasion and occupation has effectively destroyed Iraq’s national identity – if a country artificially created from old provinces of a disbanded empire could be said to have one – and unleashed all manner of ethnic and religious tensions. 

We now witness the destruction of the very identity that may at one time have sealed the country together, albeit it through fear and coercion. Rival militias dominate the streets, claiming allegiance to various religious figures, and yet all identifying as either Sunni or Shia. It’s this division between Iraqis – muted under Saddams rule – which has stirred embers to a raging inferno under the blundering care of the US military. 

The Great Wall of Adhamiya 

Recently the occupation authorities have taken a page out of the book of the British army in Northern Ireland or the Israeli Defense Forces in Palestine by building a twelve foot high three mile long dividing wall around the Sunni district of Adhamiya. Already nicknamed the "Great Wall of Adhamiya" by United States soldiers, its alleged intention, just like the "peace walls" of Belfast and Israel’s own "separation barrier": to curtail inter-communal violence. 

Adhamiya has been chosen as the location for encirclement due to its status as a focal point for Sunni Muslims, some of whom allegedly initiate violence against their Shiite neighbors and vice versa. In the long run it’s hoped the wall will be extended to create "gated communities" where residents can only come in and out via heavily guarded exit points staffed by soldiers of the Iraqi government. Apparently this would lead to a general reduction in the currently terminal levels of violence in the city, although the wall has had to endure a veritable bombardment of criticism from those in the local community. 

It’s widely feared that those living within the enclosed community will be forced to endure humiliating searches whenever they wished to travel outside of the confined area, effectively creating a prison-like atmosphere. 

This has led many people to worry that the occupation authorities have further plans to fortify the city, effectively turning it into an enclosed camp. But while to some this may seem to be a small price to pay for increased security, the hypocrisy of the American and British forces is undeniable considering their role in the creation of wide scale communal and civil strife from the start of the conflict.  

Indeed, one Adhamiya resident, who was interviewed by the BBC, had no illusions about the situation, stating that "They’re telling us the wall is to protect us from the Shia militia and they’re telling the Shia they’re protecting them from us. But it’s the Americans who started all the sectarian violence in the first place." 

With building work having begun on April 10th and only undertaken at night for security reasons, it seems the purpose of the wall is being constantly reaffirmed with the presence of armed soldiers and armored fighting vehicles guarding the construction. 

However, as is a sign of the times, the occupation forces have shown willingness to mimic the politicians at home with all manner of double speak and contradictory statements. While now publicly defending the wall, initially US spokesmen on the ground claimed that they had no plans to fortify the city, with Major General William Caldwell stating that "We have no intent to build gated communities in Baghdad. Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves]." 

Stifled Protest 

As is common practice since their arrival in Iraq in 2003, the US army has not consulted the local population about the matter. Construction began before the local Adhamiya council had even had time to draft a statement regarding the work, leaving many locals frustrated and perturbed. Such tactless behavior on the part of the US forces is unlikely to win many friends, but it goes without saying that foreign armies in occupied countries often hold little regard for the wishes of the native population.  

But opposition is by no means confined to local politicians and community leaders. On the 23rd of April Iraq’s own Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, ordered a halt to the construction work. But while US authorities responded by saying they would initiate a general review of the project, they soon made it known at a press conference that the work would continue regardless of the wishes of the government or the people directly affected. Additional information was released regarding further construction of "temporary" barriers across Baghdad made up of sandbag walls, barbed wire, and trenches. 

Since then there have been wide scale street protests from residents clearly opposed to the wall and the division it represents. However, these demonstrations of popular will – one of which consisted of around seven thousand people – were overshadowed by US military demands issued via loudspeaker for the demonstrators to return to their homes and not violate curfew. Fortunately, the protestors have so far proved difficult to intimidate, and the march went ahead without further trouble. 

Yet there is little more Iraqis can do as residents of a nation where the rule of law is only the rule of the gun. Progressive forces within the country – be they feminists, secularists or trade unionists – find their struggle stifled by the continuous warfare and the unwelcome attentions of both the militias and the occupation forces. 

The effective encircling of Adhamiya, which lies outside the already heavily fortified "Green zone", will only serve to remind Iraqis of their status as a conquered people, people who in effect have no power over their lives in a situation that is already being called a civil war.