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Iraqi Authorities to Remove Capital's Blast Walls

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 6, 2009

BAGHDAD, Aug. 5 -- Iraq's government announced Wednesday that it intends to take down within 40 days the concrete blast walls erected by the U.S. military along Baghdad's thoroughfares, a move that could backfire on the country's prime minister, who has tied his reelection hopes to keeping violence at a manageable level as American troops withdraw.

Removing miles of the blast walls that have turned this capital into a grim, bunkered city would ease traffic and help restore the sense of normalcy that Iraqis yearn for after six years of war.

But it also could help insurgents by making bombings deadlier and getaways easier. Many of the walls were erected to block access to areas used by militias to launch rocket attacks on the Green Zone and on U.S. military facilities.

Violence has increased slightly in Iraq in recent months, according to U.S. military officials. Two incidents Wednesday highlighted the security challenges that continue to bedevil Iraqi forces. A high-ranking American officer's convoy was struck by a grenade in western Baghdad. No one was hurt, the military said. Late Wednesday, powerful bombs in the capital's western neighborhood of Mansour destroyed one of the main cellphone towers of the Asiacell telecommunications network, Iraqi police officials said.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad security command, said the blast walls would vanish from highways and secondary roads within 40 days, marking the first time the government has provided a timeline for their removal.

Some Western media organizations and embassies based outside the Green Zone have quietly lobbied the Iraqi government to delay the move, which has been widely discussed for months, fearing that their compounds will become more vulnerable.

"No exceptions will be made," Moussawi said in a statement.

In 2006, the American military began a major campaign to erect the blast walls. In addition to protecting U.S. facilities, they were used to guard commercial and residential neighborhoods from attacks and to tightly regulate access to the capital. U.S. Army engineers erected most of the walls using flatbed trucks and small cranes. Concrete walls surround nearly every neighborhood in Baghdad.

Maj. David Shoupe, a U.S. military spokesman, would not say whether the Americans were notified about the Iraqi government's plan in advance or whether U.S. military officials think the Iraqis will be able to disassemble the blast walls without assistance from American troops.

"We haven't been tasked to remove barriers, nor have [Iraqi security forces] asked that we assist with their barrier removal assistance at this time," he said in an e-mail. "The Iraqi Security Forces have demonstrated that they are capable of determining the security needs of their city and we remain ready to enable their operations at their request."

Omar al-Mashhadani, a spokesman for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, dismissed the announcement as "election propaganda" by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

"I don't think they will remove all concrete walls in this period of time because they don't have the ability and the required equipment to do it in 40 days," Mashhadani said.

Some Baghdad residents said, however, that they were pleased by the news.

"This is a good step by Maliki because it will minimize the traffic jams in Baghdad," said Kadom Aboud, 37. "This will also help Maliki show that he is making progress on security in Baghdad after the withdrawal of U.S. forces."

Special correspondents Qais Mizher and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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