Iraqi PM orders halt to Baghdad barrier
Qassim Abdul-Zahra, The Associated press; with files from The Los Angeles Times
Published: Monday, April 23, 2007
CAIRO, Egypt - Iraq's prime minister yesterday ordered a halt to the U.S. military's construction of a barrier separating a Sunni enclave from surrounding Shia areas in Baghdad after criticism over the project at home.
The challenge to the U.S. initiative came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began a regional tour to shore up support from mostly Sunni Arab nations for his Shia-dominated government as sectarian violence persists despite a nearly 10-week-old security crackdown.
The U.S. military announced last week that it was building a five-kilometre-long, 3.5-metre-tall concrete wall in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold in northern Baghdad whose residents have often been the victims of retaliatory mortar attacks by Shia militants following bombings usually blamed on Sunni insurgents.
U.S. and Iraqi officials defended plans for the barrier as an effort to protect the neighbourhood, but residents and Sunni leaders complained it was a form of discrimination that would isolate the community. A large protest was scheduled for today in the area.
In his first public comments on the issue, Mr. al-Maliki said yesterday that he had ordered the construction to stop.
"I oppose the building of the wall and its construction will stop," he said during a joint news conference with the secretary-general of the Arab League in Cairo. "There are other methods to protect neighbourhoods, but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect."
He did not elaborate, but added "this wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I've ordered it to stop and to find other means of protection for the neighbourhoods." He wasn't more specific, but apparently was referring to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War and Israel's construction of a barrier in the West Bank to keep out suicide bombers.
U.S. military spokesman Lt.-Col. Christopher Garver declined to comment on whether construction of the wall would stop, saying only that all security measures were constantly under discussion.
Sectarian bloodshed continued in Iraq yesterday, with at least 72 people killed or found dead.
In the most unsettling incident, a forbidden love affair that ended with a young woman's death by stoning led to more religiously motivated killings when gunmen dragged members of a tiny religious minority off a bus and killed 23 of them, police and witnesses said.
The incident in the northern city of Mosul was shocking in its brutality and frightening for the spectre it raised -- violence between Muslims and non-Muslims aggravating the already volatile conflict involving Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds.
The victims were Yazidis, a sect that is neither Christian nor Muslim and whose followers have faced persecution from a succession of rulers.