A U.S. military brigade is constructing a 3-mile-long concrete wall to cut off one of the capital's most restive Sunni Arab districts from the Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that surround it, raising concern about the further Balkanization of Iraq's most populous and violent city.
U.S. commanders in northern Baghdad said the 12-foot-high barrier would make it more difficult for suicide bombers to strike and for death squads and militia fighters from sectarian factions to attack one another and then slip back to their home turf. Construction began April 10 and is expected to be completed by the end of the month.
You might be wondering where the idea of walls comes from. It's not the first time that physical barriers designed to isolate entire communities have been tried:
In 1961, U.S. advisors in South Vietnam, along with the Diem regime, began the implementation of a plan attempted to isolate rural peasants from contact with and influence by the National Liberation Front (NLF). The Strategic Hamlet Program, along with its predecessor, the Rural Community Development Program, played an important role in the shaping of events in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both of these programs attempted to separate rural peasants from Communist insurgents by creating fortified villages and forcing the peasants to take an active role in the civil war. The program backfired drastically and ultimately led to a decrease in support for Diem’s regime and an increase in sympathy for Communist efforts.
The program was incomplete and underfunded, and haphazardly implemented. Beyond that, there was the issue of relocating tens of thousands of peasant farmers, moving them away from the lands that they farmed, and making it considerably more difficult to move back and forth from their fields and other hamlets to work. The theory behind this plan was that isolating the population from the influence of the Viet Cong guerillas, and providing security where before there was little or none, would drain the support for the Viet Cong. In the end it only frustrated and angered those who were subjected to the program, and walls proved incapable of keeping out the guerillas who not only had the support of the population, but were made up of the local population.
Put simply, a wall is blunt and ineffective too for distinguishing between a civilian and and an insurgent. Walls will make it harder not only for Sunni insurgents and Shiite militia members to move about, but will also make it harder for ordinary Iraqis to conduct any sort of economic activity, at least when the security is formidable enough to be even remotely effective. And yet the security can never be fully effective, as it will be impossible for the soldiers manning the checkpoints that will serve as entrances to the isolated neighborhoods to pick out every insurgent and terrorist from the throngs of civilians that will be moving in and out of the neighborhoods. The walls would in all likelihood serve to frustrate and anger civilians, and at the same time fail to provide any real security.
In addition, it would seem that some Iraqis oppose the building of any barriers or walls:
The American ambassador said Monday the U.S. would ''respect the wishes'' of the Iraqi government after the prime minister ordered a halt to construction of a three-mile wall separating a Sunni enclave from surrounding Shiite areas in Baghdad.
Any plan to build ''gated communities'' to protect Baghdad neighborhoods from sectarian attacks was in doubt after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said during a visit to Sunni-led Arab countries that he did not want the 12-foot-high wall in Azamiyah to be seen as dividing the capital's sects.
Why is al-Maliki opposed to them? Here's Juan Cole:
The mainstream US media will sidestep this point, but al-Maliki pretty explicitly said that the reason he called off the wall building is that he doesn't want his government compared to that of Israel. That is, the Adhamiya wall is being likened in the Arab world to the Apartheid Wall being built by the Israelis in the West Bank. Al-Maliki made the statement in Cairo, and when he referred to the "other walls" he didn't want the one in Adhamiya compared to, he pointed toward Israel. On the other hand, Nassar al-Rubaie, a Sadrist member of the Iraqi parliament, did warn that the US is building a series of Berlin Walls in Baghdad.
However plans to build other walls are also in the works, and it is unclear whether those will continue or be scrapped as well.
As much as I sympathize with Iraq and American commanders trying to bring security to particularly violent neighborhoods in Baghdad, I don't see how this plan reflects anything more than desperation on their part. Walls are merely ineffective substitutes for boots on the ground, and every indication is that the former won't help, and we don't have enough of the latter.
UPDATE: In related news, nine soldiers died in an attack on an American base in Diyala province today. Our forces are fighting a particularly intractable enemy, and have suffered more casualties as a result:
These techniques have become increasingly devastating to the Americans in this province. Since November, when the 5,000-member 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division deployed to Diyala, at least 46 American soldiers have died in the fighting, officers said. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in the province from October 2005 to October 2006, according to a Washington Post database. Diyala was the eighth-deadliest province for Americans in 2006 but has risen to third this year, after Baghdad and Anbar provinces.
Overall American casualties in Iraq have risen only slightly since the implementation of the surge security plan, but that's because they've fallen in other provinces as American forces have concentrated on Baghdad, where casualties have subsequently increased. But today's attack in Diyala is one of the single deadliest attacks of the war. Casualties in Baghdad are not likely to come down, and casualties in Iraq overall appear likely to go up significantly as American forces shift their operations to suburbs outside of Baghdad.
UPDATE II: Here's Eugene Robinson, on why walls didn't work in Belfast and won't work in Baghdad.