At first blush it sounded like a resort to medieval siege warfare. An Iraqi Interior Ministry official announced that the government was going to build trenches around Baghdad, a circumference of 60 miles embracing a metropolis of 5 million people. Other officials here quickly denied there was such a plan, but then at a press conference in Washington, President Bush announced that U.S. and Iraqi officials had a plan to put a barricade around the city. "The enemy is changing tactics," the president said, "and we're adapting. So they're building a berm around the city to make it harder for people to come in with explosive devices, for example." Now that the cat's out of the bag, the Iraqi government is expected to announce it officially tomorrow, national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie confirmed here in an interview today.
Officials were somewhat defensive about how to describe the measure. When the new Interior Ministry spokesman, Gen. Abdul Karim al-Kinani, called it a trench, there were inevitable comparisons to a moat. (Then he was peremptorily yanked from his first press conference by higher-ups, sparking speculation he had said too much.) Rubaie rejected descriptions of it as a wall or a berm—a centuries-old method of dirt-walling a city—instead describing it as "a physical barrier of water and soil combined with a restricted number of entries to Baghdad." Other officials, however, have described it informally as "the berming of Baghdad." Actually, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, it's a combination of trench digging, natural obstacles and berms, piles of dirt pushed in place by bulldozers, high enough to prevent vehicles from crossing. The barriers, in whatever form, will leave only 28 entrances to the city, all of which will have Iraqi police and army checkpoints to control who gets in and out.
Dickey: Walls Within Walls
"It certainly is happening," said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, in Baghdad. "We're working with the Iraqi government to make it happen, mostly using terrain features, irrigation canals and so forth, tying them in with berms and trenches and other features." The purpose, he said, was "to help stem the flow both into and out of the city in order to help control movement of illegal weapons, IED materials and anybody such as kidnapping victims who might be taken out of the city." It's not the first time the method has been tried in the Iraq war; several smaller communities have been bermed, and even neighborhoods in Baghdad have been blockaded to force residents through single checkpoints. After the U.S. Marines invaded Fallujah, that small city was surrounded by an extensive network of berms, particularly on minor roads.
The plan reflects a growing concern by officials at the rise in violence in the capital despite two months of the Baghdad Security Plan, which involved a large increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops and police in the city. Last month, the Americans deployed an additional 5,000 troops, most from the Stryker Brigade, to the city to cope with rising sectarian violence. U.S. troop levels in Iraq are now at the highest level, 147,000, since 2003, and are not expected to come down until next February at the earliest, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Army's Central Command, said Tuesday. Iraqi officials want the berming to be in place in time for Ramadan, which is about to begin. Since 2003, the Muslim holy month of fasting has traditionally seen a spike in violence in Iraq.
Sectarian strife has become so severe that on Wednesday, the top U.S. military spokesman here, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said that "most Baghdad residents do not feel safe traveling outside of their neighborhoods because of the current security situation." In addition, there has been a marked increase in attacks against American soldiers, with combat deaths averaging 2.5 a day in the first three weeks of September—compared to 1.5 a day in July, according to U.S. Department of Defense figures. Military officials are concerned that this may be related to an edict issued Sept. 7 by the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. He called for all Sunnis "to kill at least one American within the next 15 days by sniper, or bomb or suicidal operation as the battlefield requires." After a decline in recent months, there's been a serious increase in the terrorists' most effective weapon, suicide car bombings, especially in Baghdad. Rubaie said the greatest utility of the barrier will be "controlling the cars and material coming in to make the entry of these VBIEDs difficult." VBIED stands for Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device, the U.S. military's acronym for car bombs. "We believe most of the VBIEDs have been manufactured in the suburbs of Baghdad."
Reports of the barrier have been greeted skeptically in Baghdad, partly because of the government's initial denials. “They’re trying to change Baghdad into a big Green Zone,” said Saleh Matleq, the head of the moderate Sunni-dominated National Consensus Front. “But the violence isn’t only from outside Baghdad, it’s inside as well.” And Muslim Scholars spokesman Abdul Salam al-Qubeisi, a hard-line Sunni, scoffed that "it may turn out to be a prison for the government troops, and a good benefit for the resistance. Meantime, it's just a big operation to steal Iraqi money."
Whether it helps the government control the Sunni-based insurgency and affiliated terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, the Baghdad berm isn't likely to address the city's biggest problem: its rampaging death squads. While recent figures are hard to get due to controversies around their release, murders in Baghdad were averaging 60 a day as of last month, and most observers believe the trend has continued or worsened this month. "This past week," Caldwell said Wednesday, "there was a spike in execution-style murders in Baghdad ... We believe death squads and other illegal armed groups are responsible for this type of violence." Most of the victims are found bound and shot execution style, often after torture. While there are both Sunnis and Shia death squads, the Shia ones are far more numerous, and often operate without interference from the Shia-dominated police—or even sometimes in concert with them. For the most part, death squads operate in city neighborhoods, so are unlikely to be affected by a citywide barrier.
The idea of a barrier around Baghdad, nonetheless, is a venerable one, Rubaie said. Much of the construction for it had in fact already been completed long before Iraqi officials came up with the idea. "It was there in the old regime, it was used by Saddam," he said. "We've never used it until now." Pictures of the project aren’t readily available because photographers risk being shot if they take pictures near Baghdad defense-construction crews. But there were signs Friday that parts of it were already in place, with huge checkpoints set up and searching every car on highways leading into the city from the southern outskirts of Yusufiyah and Mahmudiya, insurgent troublespots. The result was monumental traffic jams—something neither Saddam, nor his medieval counterparts, had to worry about.