American ambassador: U.S. will ‘respect the wishes’ of Iraqi government on barrier wall

BAGHDAD (AP) – The American ambassador said Monday the U.S. would “respect the wishes” of the Iraqi government after the prime minister ordered a halt to construction of a three-mile wall separating a Sunni enclave from surrounding Shiite areas in Baghdad.

Any plan to build “gated communities” to protect Baghdad neighborhoods from sectarian attacks was in doubt after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said during a visit to Sunni-led Arab countries that he did not want the 12-foot high wall in Azamiyah to be seen as dividing the capital’s sects.

However, confusion persisted about whether the plan would continue in some form: The chief Iraqi military spokesman said Monday the prime minister was responding to exaggerated reports about the barrier.

“We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Azamiyah neighborhood. This is a technical issue,” Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said. “Setting up barriers is one thing and building barriers is another. These are moveable barriers than can be removed.”

Al-Moussawi noted similar walls were in place elsewhere in the capital _ including in other residential neighborhoods _ as part of a nearly 10-week-old security operation. But hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Azamiyah to oppose what they called “a big prison.”

“The main aim of these barriers is to protect civilians and to guarantee that security forces are in control and prevent terrorists from moving between areas,” al-Moussawi said.

The U.S. military announced last week that it was building a three-mile long concrete wall in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold whose residents have often been the victims of retaliatory mortar attacks by Shiite militants following bombings usually blamed on Sunni insurgents.

But al-Maliki ordered construction halted on Sunday and U.S. officials said that the plans could change.

“Obviously we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Monday.

He said the barrier was aimed at protecting Azamiyah, not segregating it. Sunni leaders and residents of the neighborhood, however, complain that it is a form of discrimination that would isolate the community.

“There are other methods to protect neighborhoods,” al-Maliki said Sunday in his first public comments on the issue, “but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect.”

“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 neighborhoods,” he added during a televised live news conference during a state visit to Cairo, Egypt.

Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, indicated that there may have been a miscommunication.

“Discussions on a local level may not have been conveyed to the highest levels of the Iraqi government,” Garver said.

Al-Maliki is seeking to drum up support for his Shiite-led government among mostly Sunni Arab nations and his comments may have been aimed at appeasing them.

“Whether the prime minister saw this plan or not, I don’t know. With him in Cairo, it complicates things,” Garver said.

Hundreds of demonstrators in Azamiyah shouted slogans and carried posters saying the concrete barrier would make them prisoners of their own neighborhoods and an easier target for terrorists.

Protesters carried banners with slogans such as the “separation wall is a big prison for Azamiyah citizens” and “Azamiyah children want to see Baghdad without walls.” No violence was reported.

Dawood al-Azami, deputy director of the Azamiyah city council, said a questionnaire that was handed out in the area on Sunday indicated that 90 percent of the respondents strongly oppose the barrier.

Bombings around Iraq killed at least 27 people and wounded nearly 60, authorities said, including a suicide attack in an Iraqi restaurant just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

A parked car bomb also exploded outside the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, killing one civilian, and a drive-by shooting wounded two guards at Tunisia’s Embassy in the capital, police said.

Crocker, who replaced Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador, urged Iraqi legislators to pass key legislation that it is hoped will help bring minority Sunnis into the political process, saying “these months ahead are going to be critical.”

He said the security plan was important but its main purpose was to “buy time for what ultimately has to be a set of political understandings among Iraqis.

Crocker said the intention of the barrier in Azamiyah as well as those constructed around markets in the capital is “to try and identify where the fault lines are and where avenues of attack lie and set up the barriers literally to prevent those attacks.”

“It is in no one’s intention or thinking that this is going to be a permanent state of affairs,” he added.