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Wall to separate Sunni, Shiite neighbors

U.S. aims to quell Iraqis’ rising sectarian violence

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Iraqi troops secure the area around a mosque in Baghdad. Clashes erupted between gunmen and U.S. and Iraqi forces Friday.

Iraqi troops secure the area around a mosque in Baghdad. Clashes erupted between gunmen and U.S. and Iraqi forces Friday.

Khalid Mohammed, Associated Press

BAGHDAD — U.S. military commanders in Baghdad are trying a radical new strategy to quell the widening sectarian violence by building a 12-foot-high, 3-mile-long wall separating a historic Sunni enclave from Shiite neighborhoods.

Soldiers in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad, a Sunni Arab stronghold, began construction of the wall last week and expect to finish it within a month. Iraqi army soldiers would then control movement through a few checkpoints. The wall has already drawn intense criticism from residents of the neighborhood, who say that it will increase sectarian tensions and that it is part of a plan by the Shiite-led Iraqi government to box in the minority Sunnis.

A doctor in Adhamiya, Abu Hassan, said the wall would transform the residents into caged animals.

"It's unbelievable that they treat us in such an inhumane manner," he said in a telephone interview. "They're trying to isolate us from other parts of Baghdad. The hatred will be much greater between the two sects."

"The Native Americans were treated better than us," he added.

The U.S. military said in a written statement that "the wall is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence."

As soldiers pushed forward with the construction, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates insisted to the Iraqi government that it had to pass by late summer a series of measures long sought by the White House that are aimed at advancing reconciliation between the warring Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.

Whether the Iraqi parliament meets that benchmark could affect a decision that the Bush administration plans to make in late summer on extending the nearly 30,000 additional troops ordered to Iraq earlier this year, Gates said.

Gates' words were the bluntest yet by an U.S. official in tying the American military commitment here to the Iraqi political process. It reflected a growing frustration among Bush administration officials at Iraq's failure to move on the political elements of the new strategy. President Bush's new security plan here is aimed at buying time for the feuding Iraqi factions to come to political settlements that would, in theory, drain some of the violence.

In recent weeks, Democrats in Congress have been intensifying pressure on the president, through negotiations on financing for the war, to set political deadlines for the Iraqis and tie them to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Speaking to reporters after talks with the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, Gates urged the Iraqi parliament not to adjourn for a planned summer recess without passing legislation on sharing oil revenues, easing the purges of former Baath Party members from government positions and setting a date for provincial elections.

"Our commitment to Iraq is long term, but it is not a commitment to have our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," he said, adding that he told al-Maliki that "progress in reconciliation will be an important element of our evaluation in the late summer."

This is not the first time the Bush administration has set a timetable for Iraq to pass the reconciliation measures. Late last year, the White House gave the Iraqi government a goal of March to pass the legislation. March came and went, and senior administration officials shrugged off the missed target, saying it was counterproductive to press the Iraqis on the issue.

Gates' demand, with its strong hint of conditions attached, could force the Bush administration into a corner.

If progress on the reconciliation measures proves impossible before the target date, as many Iraqi politicians believe, U.S. officials will have to decide whether to follow through with the veiled threat. U.S. military commanders have already indicated privately it may be necessary to extend the troop reinforcements because the time between now and August will not be long enough for the new strategy to work.

A senior White House official in Washington said that Gates had not threatened to remove U.S. troops if al-Maliki cannot act by midsummer. Instead, the official said, "He simply said what everyone has said, which is that the process of political accommodation has to speed up."

President Bush spoke with al-Maliki in a secure video conference Monday morning and also emphasized the need to pass the legislation, aides said.

Al-Maliki's office issued a statement Friday saying that the prime minister was confident that steps toward reconciliation could be achieved this year.

Gates delivered his message at the end of a week of major political turmoil and security setbacks for al-Maliki's government. Al-Maliki's strongest political supporter, the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, withdrew his six ministers from the Cabinet. Car bombs in Baghdad killed at least 171 people on Wednesday, puncturing Iraqi confidence in the security plan.

Ceaseless violence is what led U.S. commanders in Adhamiya to build a wall to break contact between Sunnis and Shiites. It is the first time the Americans have tried a project of that scope in Baghdad. The soldiers jokingly call it "The Great Wall of Adhamiya," according to military officials.

Commanders have sealed off a few other neighborhoods into what they call "gated communities," but not with a lengthy wall. In the earlier efforts, American and Iraqi soldiers placed concrete barriers blocking off roads leading into the neighborhoods and left open one or more avenues of egress where people and vehicles were searched.

Soldiers did that to a degree in the volatile district of Dora during a security push there last summer. More recently, American and Iraqi army units have closed off almost all roads into the western Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Amiriya and Daoudi. Residents of Amiriya say violence dropped when the roads were first blocked off late last year, but has gradually increased again.

The project for Adhamiya involves the building of a 3-mile wall along streets on its eastern flank. It consists of a series of concrete barriers, each weighing 14,000 pounds, that have been transported down to Baghdad in flatbed trucks from Camp Taji, north of the city. Soldiers are using cranes to put the barriers in place.

Once the wall is complete, Iraqi army soldiers will operate entry and exit checkpoints, Capt. Marc Sanborn, a brigade engineer for the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, said in a news release on the project that was issued this week by the U.S. military.

The wall "is on a fault line of Sunni and Shia, and the idea is to curb some of the self-sustaining violence by controlling who has access to the neighborhoods," Sanborn said.

Adhamiya has been rife with violence throughout the war. It is a stalwart Sunni Arab neighborhood, home to the hard-line Abu Hanifa mosque, and the last place where Saddam Hussein made a public appearance before he went into hiding in 2003. Shiite militiamen from Sadr City and other Shiite enclaves to the east often attack its residents, and Sunni insurgent groups battle there among themselves.

"Shiites are coming in and hitting Sunnis, and Sunnis are retaliating across the street," Capt. Scott McLearn, an operations officer in the area, said in a written statement.

Many Sunnis across Baghdad complain that the Shiite-led government has choked off basic services to their neighborhoods, allowing trash to pile up in the streets, banks to shut down and health clinics to languish. The wall raises fears of further isolation.

Abu Hassan, the doctor in Adhamiya, said his neighborhood "is a small area. The Americans and Iraqi government should be able to control it" without building a wall.

Iraqi soldiers also operate a checkpoint at the entrance to the Sunni neighborhood of Daoudi, in western Baghdad. There, residents praised the friendliness of the Iraqi soldiers and said violence has dropped. But they are anxious about the imminent departure of the current Iraqi army unit; a Shiite unit from the south is expected to rotate in, they say.

A spokesman for the U.S. military, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, said at a news conference on Wednesday that the military did not have a policy of sealing off neighborhoods.

The American military has tried sealing off entire cities during the war. The most famous example is Fallujah, in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, where Marines began operating checkpoints on all main roads into and out of the city after laying siege to it in late 2004.

On Friday, a child was killed and nine people were wounded in a mortar attack in Baghdad, and 19 bodies were found throughout the capital. Hospital officials in Mosul said they were treating 130 Iraqi army trainees suffering from stomach illness, in a possible case of mass poisoning at a training center north of the city.

An American soldier was killed and two wounded in a rocket attack on a base in Mahmudiya on Thursday night, the American military said.

Contributing: Sahar Nageeb, Ahmad Fadam, David E. Sanger.