Friday, April 18, 2008

Hemming in

On Tuesday night, the U.S. military began to erect barriers, walling off Sadr City in an effort to halt the movement of Jaish al Mahdi fighters in and out of the sprawling Shi'ite slum. The intent is to turn the area of Sadr City closest to the Green Zone into a protected enclave, secured by American and Iraqi military forces, ostensibly this will allow for the Iraqi government to begin reconstruction, but there is no indication so far that the Iraqi government actually has any plans to rebuild the area.

“You can’t really repair anything that is broken until you establish security,” said Lt. Col. Dan Barnett, commander of the First Squadron, Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment. “A wall that isolates those who would continue to attack the Iraqi Army and coalition forces can create security conditions that they can go in and rebuild.”

On Wednesday night, huge cranes slowly lifted heavy concrete blocks into place under a moonless sky. The barriers were implanted on Al Quds Street, a major thoroughfare that separates the Tharwa and Jamilla districts to the south from the heart of Sadr City to the north.

The avenue was quiet except for the whirring sound of the cranes and thud of the barriers as they touched the ground. Contractors operated the cranes, but American soldiers transported the barriers on trucks and directed their placement.

The team building the barrier was protected by M-1 tanks, Stryker vehicles and Apache attack helicopters. As the workers labored in silence, there was a burst of fire as an M-1 tank blasted its main gun at a small group of fighters to the west. An Apache helicopter fired a Hellfire missile at a militia team equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, again interrupting the night with a thunderous boom. A cloud of dark smoke was visible in the distance through the Stryker’s night-vision system.

This is not the first time that concrete barriers have been used in Baghdad to segregate and sequester. Last summer, you might recall, it was the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya that was walled off. Residents tend to not like being ghettoized, but the military loves them and finds them effective in blunting the effectiveness of insurgents who, lacking helicopters and teleportation technology, are severely hampered in their ability to move freely.

The pre-fab concrete barriers are dropped into place by helicopters as American military forces in armored vehicles act as sentries and Iraqi forces hold positions about a hundred yards ahead, and the US forces are extremely eager to avoid a reprise of Tuesday when Iraqi forces refused to hold the line and instead walked away, leaving the territory to be reclaimed the following day by a different unit.

The wall started going up on Tuesday, and the Iraqi unit abandoned their position on Tuesday - think maybe the two events might be connected in some way? I can't say one way or another - but when I asked the Magic Eight Ball, the answer I got was "Without a Doubt."

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