Baghdad barriers mixed blessing for merchants

BAGHDAD — Tall concrete blast walls surrounding hotels and government buildings have long been a feature of Baghdad’s war-torn urban landscape, but now these tombstones are swallowing up the city’s historic markets to the chagrin of merchants.

The new barriers, erected as part of a three-month-old security crackdown, are there to shield the city’s main outdoor markets from the massive car bombs that have killed hundreds of people in recent months.

But local merchants say the new measures drive away customers, harden the country’s sectarian rifts and disfigure the city.

“These concrete barriers hurt our businesses as much as they help us,” says Ahmed Yas, a shopkeeper on Palestine Street, an upscale shopping thoroughfare in eastern Baghdad.

“They prevent customers from approaching our shops because they completely cover the shopfronts, and the customers cannot park their cars anywhere close because there is no parking.” But at the same time, he grudgingly accepts the barriers “because they protect us from the danger of car bombs and the violent acts that frighten us.” The concrete caterpillars have crawled from the ironically named Green Zone, home of the US embassy and Iraqi government, to the rest of the city, cutting off markets from main streets and slicing through battleground neighbourhoods.

In April, protests erupted when the US military announced plans to wall in Adhamiyah, a Sunni stronghold in the Shiite east of the city, with crowds from both sides condemning what they saw as a plan to divide the capital.

US and Iraqi commanders insisted the barriers were not designed to segregate the two groups, but to prevent Shiite death squads from adjacent areas from attacking Adhamiyah’s Sunnis and Sunni car bombers from getting out.

Most of the capital’s walls, however, do not follow sectarian faultlines but track the protean contours of the running street battles and random explosions that threaten all the city’s residents.

With car bombs tearing through crowded market places throughout the tortured capital city, some acknowledge the need for the added protection.

“These barriers are a solution to stop the violence and to address the dangers that target the markets,” says Alaa Saad, another shopkeeper on Palestine Street.

“They cut off the main streets from the markets and make it hard to find the place you are looking for, but they also protect us from the dangers of car bombs and roadside bombs.” Before the barriers went up most shopkeepers provided for their own security by keeping an eye out for strange vehicles and even conducting their own searches.

“Before the government set up the barriers we all worked together to guard the street because we were afraid of roadside bombs.” says Ali Kamal, a clothes seller.

But when bomb-rigged cars slipped through the results were catastrophic: in November a single coordinated attack involving car bombs and mortars killed more than 200 people in crowded markets across eastern Baghdad.

It was the single bloodiest assault on civilians since the 2003 invasion.

The new situation, Kamal says, “is more safe because we no longer fear the car bombs, and the barriers keep us out of harm’s way.” Other merchants argue that the money being spent on the ubiquitous blast walls would be better used in arming and improving the country’s fledgling security forces.

“Instead of the government buying these concrete blocks it should be paying for weapons and supplies to improve the armed forces so they can confront the terror,” said Abdullah Ahmed, the owner of a sweet shop.

“Why are we spending all this money on these barriers that disfigure our streets? We don’t need them… We need armed forces that know what they are doing,” he insisted.

Most merchants, however, have come to accept the pervasive inconveniences and crude scars that the war has left on their daily lives.

“We hope that the customers will adjust to the new situation,” Yas says, “and that one day things will return to normal.”

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