As U.S. withdraws, Baghdad eyes checkpoints
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Miles of blast walls and hundreds of checkpoints for years have made Baghdad a safer place -- but also a frustrating maze of delays and hassles for residents of the Iraqi capital.
Now, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq, officials say they are ready to remove most of the drab walls lining its streets and wrapping buildings and neighborhoods -- Baghdad's ubiquitous form of protection against recurrent bomb attacks.
The city's web of army and private checkpoints and endless grey barriers are much maligned by Iraqis, who resent the snarling traffic jams even though their presence has helped reduce violence since the height of the sectarian war in 2006.
For residents, the barriers are both curse and cure.
"I lost my job for being late for work because of checkpoints," said Qahtan Samir, 22.
"Their presence doesn't stop the terrorists anyway, they carry out their attacks whenever they want."
Baghdad security officials believe Iraqi forces are now more capable of containing violence, with Shi'ite militia less active in the city and al Qaeda-linked Sunni Islamists no longer carrying out as many attacks as at the height of violence.
Many assaults now target local security forces or government compounds, which are already highly protected.
Violence has decreased dramatically in Baghdad since the height of the conflict in 2006-2007 and bombings, attacks and assassinations have fallen sharply since the bloody days four years ago when violence killed thousands.
But the city is still a dangerous place.
Over the last week alone, suicide bombers, roadside bombs and car bombs killed more than 50 people in Baghdad. Many of the attacks target local security officials as insurgents try to undermine the government as U.S. troops withdraw.
It was during the worst of the violence that Baghdad security officials set up the blast walls and over 1,600 checkpoints to keep Shi'ite and Sunni neighborhoods apart and protect sites like the Green Zone housing parliament and embassies.
Baghdad security officials say around 60,000 blast wall sections are still in place.
Some checkpoints are only a few meters apart, causing huge tailbacks in traffic as police check identification, search vehicles and use electronic wands to check for explosives.
Roadblocks are set up by Iraq's myriad of security services and private companies.
Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for Baghdad security operations, said the goal is to steadily cut back on checkpoints by around 50 percent and remove the blast walls by the beginning of next year and then review the security situation again.
"It's true there are still some security breaches here or there, but we feel that our security forces have the control of the security situation and are able to manage," Moussawi said.
HEIGHT OF VIOLENCE
The last American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
A stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency linked to al Qaeda, other Sunni groups and rival Shi'ite militias are blamed for most of the attacks and assassinations.
Many Iraqis still question how effectively their armed forces will be able to secure the country without the buffer of the American military.
Cost is an issue. Officials want to install expensive explosive detection equipment at key remaining checkpoints as a way to keep up protections.
"We are working to remove all concrete blast walls from Baghdad. We are not afraid of any risk, but the only obstacle is the lack of financial help," Lieutenant General Ahmed Hashim, the commander of Baghdad operation command, said recently.
For many Baghdad residents, the security measures cannot be lifted quick enough.
"We live in a big prison. All the time, we are subjected to inspections," said Harb Ismail, a bus driver standing in a huge line of cars outside a checkpoint. "We look like dangerous criminals."
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Maria Golovnina)