Residents of a Sunni enclave of Baghdad demonstrated and shouted slogans yesterday against a newly built wall sealing off their neighborhood from the rest of the city.
About 2,000 people marched through al-Adhamiyah in east Baghdad carrying banners saying that their district was being turned into "a big prison".
There was confusion as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said that the building of the wall must stop while the spokesman for the US-led security crackdown asserted that "construction of security barriers across Baghdad will continue without exception".
Inside al-Adhamiyah, the three-mile long wall under construction around the area was being compared with the walls built by Israel to surround and control Palestinian towns and villages on the West Bank.
"Adhamiyah will be isolated from all other areas," said one man in a cafe in the district. "We’ll be like the Palestinians and we will not accept that."
The US military in Baghdad says it is constructing the 12ft high walls to create so-called "gated communities" in five different districts in Baghdad to protect them from sectarian attack.
But the Sunni see the walls as being primarily directed against insurgents, just as the French army walled off the Casbah in Algiers during the Algerian war in the 1950s and early 1960s to prevent anti-French fighters moving through the city. Sunnis in Baghdad are worried that the soldiers or police at the entrances to sealed off districts will be Shia soldiers and police who may detain anybody.
In many cases in the past, young men of military age have been routinely detained, tortured and their bodies found later. In al-Khadra district in west Baghdad one resident told The Independent: "My area is blocked off completely by heaps of dirt and rubbish and there is only one way in and out for vehicles. This is controlled by the security forces but nobody knows who they really are."
The newly appointed American ambassador, Ryan Crocker, said the US military "would respect" the wishes of the Iraqi government after Mr Maliki said construction of the wall must halt.
But an Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier Gen eral Qassim al-Moussawi, said the Prime Minister was reacting to exaggerated accounts of what was happening. "We expected this reaction by some weak-minded people," he said. "The aim of these barriers is to protect civilians and guarantee that security forces are in control and prevent terrorists from moving between areas."
The US seems to have underestimated the hostility towards the new walls.
"There are other methods to protect neighborhoods," said Mr Maliki during a press conference in Cairo. "This wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I’ve ordered it to stop." The walls he was referring to were undoubtedly those dividing Jerusalem and the West Bank, which often feature on Arabic television.
There seems little doubt that Sunnis in districts of Baghdad being isolated by the walls do not see them as designed for their own protection. Banners carried by demonstrators yesterday proclaimed, "Separation is a big prison for al-Adhamiyah citizens" and "Children in al-Adhamiyah want a Baghdad without walls".
People in al-Adhamiyah say they fear that, contrary to US and Iraqi army expectations, their district will become a fortress ruled by al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Extreme Sunni groups are allegedly already killing men who wear shorts or smoke or listen to music in public. A wall is also useless in preventing rockets or mortars being fired into the area.
Meanwhile in northern Iraq gunmen ordered 23 members of the ancient Yazidi sect off a bus, lined them up against a wall and shot them.
The killings were the latest development in a bloody dispute that began several months ago when a Yazidi woman converted to Islam and ran off with a man. She was later stoned to death by her disapproving relatives. The Yazidis, who number some 325,000, speak Kurdish and live east and west of Mosul.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.