Baghdad's barriers imprison civilians

In occupied Iraq, Baghdad resembles a sprawling military camp.

    The military zone has locked in Baghdad civilians

    Coils of barbed wire snake around many businesses, educational institutions, government buildings and, of course, US military bases. 

    Concrete barriers, ranging from one to two-and-a-half metres, have sliced major streets in two, surrounded hotels and government institutions. In upscale neighbourhoods, including Mansur where a number of embassies are housed, armed men patrol the streets.

    US occupation forces conduct their patrols in pairs of armoured vehicles, zooming through the capital’s streets. On the second vehicle there is usually a soldier pointing his machine gun at civilian cars.

    Grim reminder

    It is a constant, grim reminder for Iraqis of who is in charge. 

    Residents of the so-called Green Zone deal with these realities possibly more than any Iraqis.

    The zone is a heavily guarded area in central Baghdad, including the main palaces of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, where the US occupation authorities now live and work. 

    Its borders are difficult to determine. A Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) spokesman refused to comment on the size of the Green Zone "or anything that includes operational security". 

    But this is not a standard military compound: it continues to house civilians. CPA officials refuse to say how many Iraqis live within it.

    "This is a prison, not freedom. We used to watch the Palestinians on television and feel bad for them. Now we are living the same thing"

    Baghdad resident

    Iraqis living there need to navigate through rigorous US checkpoints, where they wait for hours until testy occupation soldiers start inspections. Soldiers, who often do not speak Arabic, shout orders in English at approaching cars. Their Iraqi translators are not always on hand. 

    As yet another car approaches the checkpoint, a US soldier says exasperatedly: "They just don't understand the meaning of a checkpoint."

    Palestinian circumstances

    Sayf, Ahmad and Iyad have been waiting at Checkpoint 12 for almost two hours to get to their homes within the Green Zone. They killed the ignition of their car long ago and are standing against it, watching the line grow. 

    They say the cars ahead, including the one at the front of the line, have not moved in the past two hours. Sayf, a student at Baghdad University, says he goes through the same process every day.

    Sayf describes how occupation forces comb his car on a daily basis: they open the bonnet, trunk and interior and search them all before letting him pass through.

    US checkpoints in the capital
    have left motorists frustrated

    "This is a prison, not freedom," he says. "We used to watch the Palestinians on television and feel bad for them. Now we are living the same thing… They have a wall and we have many walls," he said, referring to the concrete barrier Israel is constructing cutting off parts of the occupied West Bank.

    Iraqis blame occupation forces for the most recent indignities. "It was better before. We were free to move around," says Sayf.

    Humiliation at home

    Waiting at a checkpoint in their own country for foreign forces to wave them through is humiliating, they say.

    "We thought things would get better, but it seems to be getting worse and worse," says Ahmad.

    He has chosen to rent an apartment outside the Green Zone, "because I can't wait every day for two or three hours to get home".

    Ahmad, also a student at Baghdad University, visits his parents and five younger sisters about twice a week.

    "Since the occupation, we have been locked in," adds Iyad. "Sometimes at 6pm we come here and we don't get in because they [US soldiers] are not there," he says. In these situations, they either wait for forces to resume checks or sleep at a relative's or friend’s house outside the area.

    Forces have sealed off vital
    bridges with concrete barriers

    While Ahmad may have the financial means to rent another apartment, many Iraqis do not. With summer just around the corner, the delay at the  checkpoint - in a city where temperatures soar to 50C - will get even grimmer. 

    "In the winter, we would sit under the rain for three hours," recalls Ahmad.

    Today, however, the weather is pleasant - the reason why Majid Jassim, who has been waiting for two hours, has abandoned his car to walk back home with his 12-year-old nephew.

    It is 5km away but he has forgotten some paperwork and will have to go back. "Maybe we can find someone with a car or even a taxi," he says hopefully as he presents the Iraqi policeman with his Green Zone identity card. 

    When the occupation forces took over the area, all residents were issued with a picture ID card in English stating their names, addresses and a number. They can now only access the zone with it.


    The zone has also made Baghdad’s streets chaotic.

    One of the capital's seven vital bridges, Jisr al-Muaalaq, has been sealed off. It provided passage from Karrada in central Baghdad to the other half of the city. Motorists are forced to travel through the leafy - and once quiet - residential area of Qadasiyya.

    Strict security checks are part
    of a daily routine for Iraqis

    Residents of this up market neighbourhood are frustrated by the extra traffic and the concrete barrier that has sprouted in the middle of their district.

    About 2m high and 2km long, the wall encloses the residencies of some of the Iraqi Governing Council members, including Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, and some media outlets, such as the US government-funded television station al-Hurra.

    There are seven US soldiers milling around with members of the Iraqi Civil Defence Corps at the compound’s gates. A US soldier politely declines to discuss anything about the wall but the Iraqis are more than willing to chat.

    An ICDC member says the barrier is a "security measure" against attacks. While the concrete barrier would partially absorb the impact of a car bomb and protect the residents within the compound, it will do little for those outside.

    "This wall doesn't offer us security … but it does for those living inside of the compound," says Qadasiyya resident Saadun Ubaidi.

    "It's like having a checkpoint right in your home," he says. "The same way that Israel is building a wall in Palestine, we now have this wall."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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