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IRAQ: In one 'Black Night,' another Baghdad neighborhood is walled in

July 11, 2008 | 12:27 pm

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By Usama Redha in Baghdad

The vehicles moved through the cratered roads and alleys, looking for a way to leave the neighborhood.

My microbus driver zig-zagged aimlessly, changing course or going straight as other drivers made hand gestures to indicate that the road ahead was closed or open.

After a while we were all moving like a convoy, a convoy of microbuses searching for a way out of the neighborhood.

It was the day after the wall went up. The wall consists of gloomy concrete chunks, 12 feet high, set side by side to enclose my neighborhood.

Seven miles of it went up overnight. We call it "the Black Night."

The wall wasn't erected completely, so my driver hoped to find an opening he could squeeze his microbus through. Eventually he gave up and went to the exit manned by two checkpoints and took his place at the end of a long line. When we finally cleared the checkpoints, the other passengers and I saw fresh graffiti that said, "Rafah Crossing welcomes you."

But we were not in Rafah Camp, we were not in Israel at all; we were in Baghdad and the area was Hurriya.

Hurriya has been a hot zone, used by the Madhi Army militia of the anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr to launch missiles and mortars against American bases in Baghdad. To avoid capture, the militia would hide among the civilians.

Until Sadr renewed a cease-fire declared last year, there were sometimes several attacks a day.
Recently the attacks diminished as the Madhi Army splintered and declined under the U.S. and Iraqi campaign against militias.

Despite the reduced threat, the Americans informed the municipal council of Hurriya that they intended to wall the suburb on the northwest side of the city, said a council member who declined to be named. The engineers left four entrances.

"But it was not enough because Hurriya is a vast area," the council member said. "We need at least five for the vehicles and six for people."

On the first day of the wall, people made their own entrances by squeezing through the cracks.
The graffiti that quickly showed up expressed several points of view:

"Yes to the government," one person wrote. "Fat people stay out," said another.

But the workers came back that night, and the next day, the cracks were gone.

Abd al-Sahib, 34, an electrical engineer, was outraged.

"This is a war against the people of Hurriya," he said. "I barely could find a hole between a chunk and electricity pole close to my house."

Abu Sara, 26, a civil servant who was visiting his brother in Hurriya, approved.

"I wish they would wall it completely and burn it to the ground because of the bad people," Sara said.

A police officer who asked not to be named took a middle stance.

"The reason behind walling the city is to make it a no-arms zone, to pave the way to bring the displaced people back to their homes."

Whether it is good or bad, this I can say about the wall. It is exhausting me. I now wait at the checkpoint every day, sweltering in a vehicle with no air conditioning as the thermometer rises past 100.

My father has suffered too. When I dropped by to say hello after work, I saw that his legs were bandaged.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I found a good entrance," he said. "But the second day, when I wanted to use it again, it was smaller, and I didn’t have the energy to go looking for another one."

Now some people are starting to pry apart the concrete blocks with tools.

Photo: A child tries -- and fails -- to scale the wall that encloses Baghdad's Hurriya neighborhood. Credit: Usama Redha / Los Angeles Times

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