Sunday, December 9, 2007

Baghdad Safer, But It's A Life Behind Walls

Mini fortified 'green zones' are cropping up, improving security but leaving many residents feeling penned in.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Abu Nawas, Baghdad's storied riverbank thoroughfare, reopened amid much official fanfare two weeks ago. But three years since they last saw business, merchants on the street are facing a new challenge, say some local merchants: overwhelming security.

Abu Nawas – once witness to frequent suicide car bombs and mortar attacks – now hums with activity of a different sort. The newly fortified area is patrolled by Humvees and guarded by US-funded private security companies that search every entering vehicle and scrupulously monitor shopkeepers and residents – and occasional intrepid visitors.

For Hassan Abdullah, a cabinetmaker, that spells bad business. "It's worse than the Green Zone," he exclaims. No customers come in. He can't even deliver orders, he says.

It's not just Abu Nawas that's starting to resemble a fortress. Walls like those around the ultrasecure Green Zone, where US officials and Iraqi dignitaries live and work, are rising around neighborhoods all over Baghdad – new "Green Zones" protected by US-paid Iraqi neighborhood guards.

Creating civilian havens is a cornerstone of the US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. While many here are grateful for the newfound calm, they say the price is an increasingly segregated city that is starting to feel like a collective cage. In many cases, the US military is keeping tabs on male residents by collecting fingerprints and retinal scans.

"One road in and one road out, that's it," says Ghazaliya resident Muhammad Rajab. "Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison," he adds wryly.

Violence has fallen to its lowest level since February 2006, and attacks on US forces are down 55 percent since June, according to the US military. But the top US commander, Gen. David Petraeus, warned against complacency last week, a day after Baghdad saw its worst car bombing since September. Sunday, the police chief of Babil Province, a US ally, was killed. Two days after, suicide attacks against US-funded neighborhood guards in Diyala killed 26, and a shooting in Mosul killed two prominent US tribal allies.

In Baghdad, the extent of the transformation is clear from driving along main arteries. Western areas – Adel, Ameriyah, Ghazaliya, and Jamiaa, until recently stomping grounds for Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda-linked fighters, are ringed with concrete walls at least 12-feet high.

The western highway is secured by numerous Iraqi Army checkpoints. Reminders of this zone's violent recent history are everywhere: a gutted flyover bridge, bullet-riddled homes, and graffiti that reads, "Down with Bin Laden and his miserable bunch." A battered sign reads: "Welcome to Baghdad."

The landscape resembles that of other western and southern neighborhoods like Amel, Dora, and Saidiyah. The perimeter sometimes includes wire fences, favored spots to hang black funeral banners or white ones advertising holidays abroad.