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The Walls of Baghdad

Confusion persists about the erection of walls in Baghdad. Some critics of this joint Iraqi-U.S. military project are raising the specter of the Berlin Wall or of a West Bank-style barrier separating Sunnis and Shiites. Reacting to such criticism, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced, while attending a meeting in Cairo, that he did not want to see a twelve-foot-high wall built around the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah.

Odds are, however, that the building of walls will persist, though most of them will be made up of shorter, three-foot-tall “Jersey” barriers rather than the taller “Texas” barriers that stretch twelve feet high. Most American and Iraqi security officials are convinced that the barriers are the way to go. (In fact, in one Baghdad meeting recently, I listened to an Iraqi general ask for taller barriers to go in faster.) An increasing number of ordinary Iraqis agree.

It’s not hard to see why: Concrete saves lives by impeding the movement of terrorists. In fact, as Linda Robinson reports in U.S. News & World Report, last week’s car bombing of the Sadriya market, which killed over a hundred people, might have been averted had not local complaints led Iraqi security officials to remove several Texas barriers arrayed around the market prior to the blast.

The point of these barriers isn’t to create a dividing line between Sunnis and Shiites, although admittedly that would be their effect in some places. The real point is to allow Iraqi and American security forces to keep a neighborhood free of terrorists once it has been cleared. Concrete barriers limit movement, channeling cars and pedestrians through a handful of checkpoints (known formally as ECP’s, or entry control points). Security personnel manning those checkpoints can turn away anyone who doesn’t have any business being in the neighborhood.

And how will they know who belongs and who doesn’t? In order to make this policy effective, officials or soldiers need to canvas the neighborhood, gathering census-style data about every household. It would help tremendously if Iraq launched a formal census and issued biometric identity cards to everyone. Such a step is under discussion by the Maliki government, but don’t hold your breath—it won’t happen anytime soon. Even short of such a solution, U.S. and Iraqi security forces are already improvising population surveys in their areas using handheld computers.

The whole process ought to be familiar to students of counterinsurgency. It is, in essence, an update of the old plan known as “concentration” zones or camps. The latter name causes understandable confusion, since we’re not talking about extermination camps of the kind that Hitler built, but rather of settlements where locals can be moved to live under guard, thereby preventing insurgent infiltration. The British used this strategy in the Boer war, the Americans during the Philippine war, and many other powers took similar steps in many other conflicts. In Vietnam they were known as “strategic hamlets.”

This type of massive population movement is not practical today given Iraq’s dense urban environment and nationalist sensitivities, but concrete barriers and tamper-proof identity cards can achieve some of the same result. There’s nothing nefarious about the process. It’s Counterinsurgency 101. The only wonder is that it’s taken so long for this obvious strategy to be implemented.



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