- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. soldiers are building a three-mile wall to protect a Sunni Arab enclave surrounded by Shi’ite neighborhoods in a Baghdad area “trapped in a spiral of sectarian violence and retaliation,” the military said.

When the wall is finished, the minority Sunni community of Azamiyah, on the eastern side of the Tigris River, will be gated, and traffic-control points manned by Iraqi soldiers will be the only entries, the military said.

“Shi’ites are coming in and hitting Sunnis, and Sunnis are retaliating across the street,” said Capt. Scott McLearn, of the U.S. 407th Brigade Support Battalion, which began the project April 10 and is working “almost nightly until the wall is complete.”

The concrete wall, including barriers as tall as 12 feet, “is one of the centerpieces of a new strategy by coalition and Iraqi forces to break the cycle of sectarian violence” in Baghdad, the military said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have long erected cement barriers around some marketplaces, coalition bases and outposts in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities such as Ramadi in an effort to prevent attacks, including suicide car bombs.

U.S. forces also have constructed huge sand barriers around towns such as Tal Afar, an insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border.

But until now, there has been little sign of the U.S. military using concrete barriers to divide Baghdad neighborhoods by sect.

Currently, the U.S. strategy for stabilizing Iraq involves getting Iraqis to reconcile and support the democratically elected Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, and a security plan in the capital that calls for 28,000 additional U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqi soldiers.

U.S. Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the top spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq, was quoted as saying Wednesday that he was unaware of any effort to build a wall dividing Shi’ite and Sunni enclaves in Baghdad and that such a tactic was not a policy of the Baghdad security plan.

“We have no intent to build gated communities in Baghdad,” the Stars and Stripes newspaper quoted Gen. Caldwell as saying. “Our goal is to unify Baghdad, not subdivide it into separate [enclaves].”

The Azamiyah barrier will allow authorities to screen people entering and leaving the area of northern Baghdad “while keeping death squads and militia groups out,” the U.S. military said.

Security in the three Shi’ite communities on the other side of the wall also will be stepped up, and the barrier is expected to make it harder for insurgents to plant roadside bombs in the area targeting coalition forces, the military said.

The construction work by the U.S. military involves flatbed trucks carrying concrete barriers weighing 14,000 pounds. Operating under bright lights, the cranes lift the barriers into place while being protected by U.S. tanks.

In other Iraq war-related developments:

• Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, stressing the limits of U.S. patience, said yesterday in Baghdad that the Bush administration will weigh Iraq’s political progress in deciding this summer whether to bring home some of the U.S. troops.

“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,” Mr. Gates told U.S. and Iraqi reporters at a press conference in the capital.

• U.S. helicopters pounded an area near a Shi’ite mosque in western Baghdad with heavy machine-gun fire yesterday, killing two militants just before the start of weekly prayer services and outraging preachers loyal to militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The attack occurred near the Ali al-Baiyaa Mosque in western Baghdad. Sheik al-Sadr’s militia is increasingly showing signs of impatience with a U.S.-led push to secure Baghdad, raising fears it might resume its campaign of violence after more than two months of little activity.

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