Friday, May 08, 2009

Iraq's wall-builders mourn drop in violence

by Ammar Karim Ammar Karim Fri May 8, 2:03 am ET BAGHDAD (AFP) – Ahmed Obeid Ibrahim longs for the good old days in Iraq, when car bombs thundered across the city, sectarian militias ruled the streets and his concrete barrier business was booming. "I used to install thousands of barriers for the American army. I set them up in the most dangerous streets and neighbourhoods," he says, reminiscing about the height of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2006. That was before US and Iraqi forces allied with local tribes and militias to bring a fragile calm to most of the country, and before Baghdad authorities decided the towering walls and barbed wire snaking through the city had to go. "The demand for barriers has vanished lately with the improvement in the security situation," Ibrahim said. "The work has been halted at some factories, and others have shut down completely." He says that the price of a single T-wall, a five-tonne three-metre (12 foot)-high wall in the shape of an inverted T, has plummeted from 1,200 to 300 dollars. The walls were never popular among Baghdadis, who complained that they scarred the landscape, worsened traffic and isolated entire neighbourhoods. Last month the Baghdad security spokesman said they would be lifted from all streets by the end of the year. "We have received instructions from the prime minister (Nuri al-Maliki) that all concrete barriers should be removed from the streets of Baghdad by the end of 2009," Major General Qassim Atta told AFP. "Measures will be taken to protect the streets after they have been opened," he said, without making mention of the heavily-fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad that is home to the Iraqi government and US embassy. Atta said in early April that 88 streets had been closed at the height of the fighting. "By now we have succeeded in opening 75 percent of them." The Baghdad municipality has expressed support for the plan, and is mulling the idea of gathering the discarded barriers -- many of which have been painted as murals by residents -- to make a kind of war memorial. "The purpose of these walls was protection, but now there is no need for them," city spokesman Hakim Abdel Zahra said, adding that they may still be necessary to guard military compounds and other government buildings. The barrier builders have long shared a certain gallows humour about their grim trade, which thrived off the devastating car bombs and kidnappings that killed tens of thousands of people since the 2003 US-led invasion. Yasser al-Musawi, another contractor, recalled how one time he and a barrier factory owner were outside talking when a loud explosion shook the area. "The factory owner said, with complete joy: 'We will go to back to work again!... I hope there are more explosions so we can produce more,'" Musawi said. "I was shocked." Musawi would be grateful for more business, but thinks the government should keep the walls on the outskirts of the city instead of blocking off its main streets and central neighbourhoods. "There are times when you have to use these barriers, but sometimes we find that we are using them so much that they start to strangle us," he said. Many of the companies that used to manufacture the barriers are hoping they can now help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure, which is crumbling from decades of war, international sanctions, and neglect. The head of one of the biggest barrier manufacturers in the country, who asked not to be named, said he hopes the improved security situation will allow him to get back to his core business of transport construction. "Our company specialises in building bridges, tunnels and embankments," he said. "We only started making concrete walls because of the increase in demand. Now we are concentrating on our main line of work." It may be premature to declare that the era of the T-walls has passed. US and Iraqi commanders have repeatedly warned that the present calm is a fragile one and attacks in the capital are still common. Last week alone more than 150 people were killed in a devastating spate of suicide attacks, including a twin bombing near a revered Shiite shrine in central Baghdad that slaughtered 65, including women and children. Ibrahim still casts a wary eye on his country's neighbours, whom many Iraqis have long blamed for stoking the violence. "The barriers that have been produced can be used to plug holes along the borders," he said, his eyes lighting up. "That's a long way, more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles)."

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