BAGHDAD – The U.S. military is walling off at least 10 of Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods and using biometric technology to track some of their residents, creating what officers call “gated communities” in an attempt to carve out oases of safety in this war-ravaged city.
The plan drew widespread condemnation in Iraq in the past week. On Sunday night, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told news services that he would work to halt construction of a new wall around the Sunni district of Adhamiyah, which residents said would aggravate sectarian tensions by segregating them from Shiite neighbors. The U.S. military says the walls are meant to protect people, not further divide them in a city that is increasingly a patchwork of sectarian enclaves.
The military sees a simple virtue in the barriers.
“If we keep the bad guys out, then we win,” said 1st Lt. Sean Henley, 24, who works out of an outpost in southern Ghazaliyah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold on Baghdad’s western edge that is among the first of the gated communities. The square-mile neighborhood of about 15,000 people now has one entrance point for civilian vehicles and three military checkpoints that are closed to the public.
In some sealed-off areas, troops armed with biometric scanning devices will compile a neighborhood census by recording residents’ fingerprints and eye patterns and will perhaps issue them special badges, military officials said.
At least 10 Baghdad neighborhoods are slated to become or already are gated communities, said Brig. Gen. John Campbell, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad.
The tactic is part of the two-month-old U.S. and Iraqi counterinsurgency plan to calm sectarian strife and is loosely modeled after efforts in cities such as Tal Afar and Fallujah, where the military says it has curbed violence by strictly controlling access. The concept has produced mixed results in previous wars – including failure in Vietnam, where peasants were forcibly moved to fortified hamlets, only to become sympathizers of the insurgency.
Soldiers and military officials said that it was too early to evaluate the success of Baghdad’s gated communities and that adjustments would be made according to results and residents’ feedback, some of which has been negative. But they insisted the measure is worth a try in the city’s bloodiest neighborhoods.
“We’ve really taken a hard look and said, ‘This is an area where we need to monitor people coming in and people coming out … and it is the only way we could do it,’ ” Campbell said.
Wartime Baghdad has become a tableau of barricades as violence has swelled. Enterprising residents put them to use as free advertising space, blank canvases for graffiti and sunny spots for drying carpets.
But the blockading of Baghdad has reached full throttle under this year’s security crackdown, with dozens of new neighborhood military outposts needing protection – and fast.
The push has triggered a run on concrete barriers, which sometimes are not fully dry when military engineering units pick them up, said Capt. David Hudson, 30, who leads a company charged with building many of the city’s blast walls. The unit now goes through as many as 2,000 barriers a week.
Hudson’s unit spent weeks installing 6-foot tall, 1 1/4-mile long walls along the northern and southern borders of southern Ghazaliyah. Another unit blocked the cross streets on the east side with waist-high Jersey barriers.
Under cover of darkness on a recent night, Hudson’s soldiers placed 44 barriers at an intersection on the eastern edge of Ghazaliyah, a spot known for bombs and snipers. Tanks and Humvees provided security for the cranes and forklifts being used to build what would be the neighborhood’s lone civilian checkpoint.
“They’ve been doing it in Florida, and the old people seem to like it,” joked the platoon’s leader, Sgt. 1st Class Charles Schmitt, 37, as he watched his team create the public entrance to the new gated community.