Baghdad hasn't been this quiet in years. But the respite from bloodshed comes at a high price.
Up to 20 feet high in some sections.
Rows after rows of barrier walls divide the city into smaller and smaller areas that protect people from bombings, sniper fire and kidnappings. They also lead to gridlock, rising prices for food and homes, and complaints about living in what feels like a prison.
Baghdad's walls are everywhere. They have turned a capital of leafy neighborhoods and palm-lined boulevards into a city of shadows that separate Sunnis from Shiites.
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The walls block access to schools, mosques, churches, hotels, homes, markets and even entire neighborhoods – almost anything that could be attacked. For many Iraqis, they have become the iconic symbol of the war.
“Maybe one day they will remove it,” said Kareem Mustapha, a 26-year-old Sadr City resident who lives a five-minute walk from a wall built this spring in the large Shiite district.
“I don't know when, but it is not soon.”
Indeed, new walls are still going up, the latest one around the northwestern Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah, where thousands of Sunnis were slaughtered or expelled in 2006. They could well be around for years to come, enforcing the capital's fragile peace and enshrining its sectarian divisions.
Some walls are colorful, painted by young local artists with scenes depicting green pastures or the pomp and glory of Iraq's ancient civilizations.
Most are just bleak and gray, a reminder that danger lurks on the other side.
“The walls have stopped gunmen from coming into the neighborhood,” said Salim Ahmed, a 29-year-old oil refinery worker who lives and works in Dora. “But we also feel that we are in a prison and isolated from the rest of the city.”
First introduced by the Americans in 2003 to protect their Green Zone headquarters, walls became much more widespread with the launch early last year of a major security campaign in Baghdad. In some walled-off neighborhoods, access was granted only on proof of residence or special ID cards.
Now, there's hardly a street in Baghdad without a wall – or a cheaper substitute like barbed wire, palm tree trunks, mounds of dirt or piles of rocks. They're even used to control pedestrian and vehicular traffic in risky areas.
In April, the U.S. military sealed off the southern section of Sadr City to put the American Embassy and Iraqi government offices out of range of rockets and mortars fired by Shiite militiamen.
The shelling has since stopped, and quick-thinking entrepreneurs rushed to lay claim to a spot against the wall to sell fruits and vegetables.
Because of the Sadr City wall, Mustapha's journey to work every day now involves a 15-minute walk and two minibus rides – a major inconvenience considering Baghdad's unforgiving summer heat.
“It's both annoying and useful,” Mustapha said. “It makes us feel like prisoners, but things have calmed down since they built it.”