The Two Sides of Baghdad Barriers
Monday, April 30, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Sabah Abd's fruit stand is a few feet from the concrete barrier dividing Baghdad's Sadriya market from a bus depot that was bombed April 18 in one of the deadliest attacks since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation in February to secure the capital.
"The whole world shook," said Abd, 33, recalling that the blast occurred as workers were crowding into vans and buses to go home for the day, and that it threw him to the ground, splattered with blood.
But only three days after the attack, Abd was back at his stand, charred vehicles still littering the parking area a few yards away. "My wife said, 'If you go there, I will divorce you,' but what can I do? There is no work outside," he said.
Abd decided to reopen his fruit stand because the barrier erected around the market by U.S. forces had shielded him from harm, despite the huge explosion nearby. "This wall protected us," he said.
New walls around markets and other public gathering places -- one of the most visible features of the military push to stem violence in Baghdad -- are meant to counter what U.S. commanders now consider one of the most lethal and psychologically devastating weapons in the insurgents' arsenal: vehicles that suicide attackers pack with ever more powerful explosives.
"I'm concerned about the single big events that continue to occur," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the senior U.S. military operations commander in Iraq.
Although sectarian killings have decreased in Baghdad since February, when tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops began arriving, attacks with the vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, known as VBIEDs, have increased. Supply of the weapons, which commanders liken to a low-tech precision bomb, is virtually unlimited. "It's a sophisticated network, but not a sophisticated weapon," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. "The difference is a set of keys and a driver."
The barriers and checkpoints have helped reduce civilian casualties by keeping vehicles away from markets, mosques and other places in Baghdad that draw crowds and limiting traffic to pedestrians, mopeds, bicycles and pushcarts. This has led some suicide bombers to detonate their vehicles in places with fewer people, U.S. military officials say.
But the fortifications have drawbacks as well as limitations. Too many roadblocks can choke off the business and community activities they are designed to safeguard. "What do we deny? What do we carefully monitor? What do we allow to flow freely?" Fil asked. Insurgents continually look for ways to attack "the next vulnerable target," as they did by bombing the bus depot outside the protected Sadriya market, he said.
The Rusafa district in eastern Baghdad is a center of markets frequented by Shiite residents and workers, and it has often been targeted in car bombings by Sunni extremist groups. U.S. troops stationed at a nearby outpost in Rusafa said the recent market bombing was so large it shook their building.
"We thought we were hit with a mortar," said Staff Sgt. Stuart Toney, 29, of Mount Morris, Ill., who works with Iraqi police and was one of the first soldiers on the scene. "VBIEDs are the Sunni method of madness."
Minutes later, Lt. Ian Edgerly, 24, of the 82nd Airborne Division, approached the bomb site, past people wheeling out burned corpses in carts, and quickly encountered a hostile crowd. "People were starting to call us names, all sorts of profanities," said Edgerly, of Austin. "They were blaming the coalition" for not protecting them, he said. Edgerly and other U.S. troops blocked off the area but kept their distance.