In Islamabad, some call for city to let down its guard

ISLAMABAD — To visitors, Islamabad appears to be a mostly green and peaceful city whose relative prosperity is evidenced by the manicured lawns and neat flower beds gracing many residences and public buildings. But increased security measures put in place after the Marriott hotel was bombed in 2008 added a bunker-like feel to Pakistan’s capital, especially at hotels, where patrons must pass thorough multiple metal detectors, bag searches and scanners simply to get a cup of tea in the lobby cafe.

The balance between security and livability was at issue last week as the local government directed the Marriott to remove all road barriers in front of the hotel because they have “blocked the road illegally, causing problems for the general public.” The move seemed surprising, given that protection against terrorist attacks has usually trumped public convenience.

The Capital Development Authority (CDA) requested removal of the road encroachments because the barricades caused traffic jams, it said, and marred the natural beauty of the federal capital.

Drivers welcomed the news: “These barricades are only causing problems and inconvenience for citizens wherever they are, whether at Marriott hotel or any other place,” said Tahir Hussain, a 27-year-old taxi driver. “The authorities need to end them.”

Marriott constructed the barriers after a suicide bomber drove a dump truck filled with explosives into the hotel, killing at least 60 people and injuring more than 250.

It was a signal event often cited as the worst terrorist incident in the city’s 50-year history.

The hotel reopened three months after the September 2008 bombing with new features, including a 14-foot high, 15-foot thick security wall, a bombproof room through which all guests must pass, new scanners and metal detectors.

The new hotel has been described as a fortress. The building is located near Parliament and other government landmarks.

But nearly a week after the development authority’s directive, nothing had changed — traffic backups continued, raising speculation that the city had caved into pressure from the hotel. A Marriott spokesman was cryptic when asked for an explanation.

“We have already obtained the required permissions, and other than that I think this matter is solved,” said the spokesman, Murtaza, who only gave one name.

He declined to go into further detail about the large yellow and black striped concrete slabs that so annoy drivers. And officials at the CDA did not respond to further requests for comment.

Residents are quick to recall the rash of suicide bombings in 2007-2008 in Islamabad and nearby Rawalpindi, but some say it is time for the capital to drop its guard.

“I have been in Islamabad for the last 15 years and seen it transforming from a calm and serene city with people moving around freely to a well-guarded castle-like town,” said Rashid Saeed, a 41-year-old trader. “At one time all these protective measures were needed but now it’s time to remove all the barriers.”

Washington Post special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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