by Laura Snedeker
When all else fails, build a wall. Unable to claim a military victory or public relations victory over the militant Shi’ite Mahdi Army in Iraq, this week, U.S. forces began the construction of a wall dividing the Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City in two.
The wall, which is twelve feet high in some places, separates the insurgent-controlled northern section of the city from the southern section in order to protect the Green Zone. The Green Zone, which houses the U.S. embassy and is the headquarters for the Iraqi government, has come under heavy fire since the followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr clashed with American and Iraqi forces earlier this month.
The military’s last-ditch attempt to reduce the violence in Iraq is indicative of the deteriorating situation. In the face of mass desertions by Iraqi Army troops and wavering support in the United States for the war, the military has undertaken an effective, but unpopular method of control. Although walls in other Baghdad neighborhoods successfully reduced violence against U.S. troops, many Iraqis complain of difficulties in moving though checkpoints.
More importantly, the construction of a barrier through the middle of an Iraqi city is reminiscent of the actions of other occupying powers and is a distinctly unwelcome sight in the Arab world. Probably the most well-known modern example, the Berlin Wall, divided a city in two and clearly distinguished between those who were free and those who were not.
The barrier separating the West Bank in the Palestinian territories from Israel has been a flash point for violence in the Middle East since the Israeli government began construction in 2002. The Israeli government claims the wall is necessary for protecting Israeli civilians from Palestinian suicide bombers and snipers, but many Palestinians complain they have been cut off from their land and frequently encounter problems at Israeli checkpoints.
The comparison is close enough. For the U.S. to undertake a similar project indicates a profound ignorance of sentiments in the Middle East. The Israeli barrier and U.S. support for Israel are among Muslims’ top grievances against the West, grievances that al-Qaeda has successfully exploited for its own agenda at the expense of moderates.
Coincidentally, another symbol of the lasting presence of the U.S. in the Middle East was completed last week. The State Department approved the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, a sprawling 104-acre compound that cost the U.S. government more than $730 million. It is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world (and a frequent target of rocket fire from insurgents), the perfect example of imperial excess in the midst of chaos.
The embassy is yet another barrier between American policy in Iraq and the civilians whose lives it affects. In contrast to the poor progress in the reconstruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, the fortified, self-sufficient “city within a city” looks more like America’s last refuge than a force for stability; its occupants more colonial administrators than diplomats.
Rather than try to see the conflict from the perspective of Iraqi civilians or insurgents, those in charge of the war have separated themselves physically and psychologically from the situation. The wall in Sadr City is a monument to America’s desperation and poor understanding of the Middle East, the embassy a symbol of America’s stubborn insistence on ruling an uncooperative country. American policymakers cannot deny the facts forever, but if the past five years are any indication they can hold out a long time.
(The photo shows U.S. troops deployed in Sadr City. Department of Defense photo by Cpl. John Wright, U.S. Army; the photo is in the public domain.)
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by Laura Snedeker