BAGHDAD The blast walls that have divided Baghdad communities and turned its streets into canyons of concrete since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 will be removed within 40 days, Iraq said on Wednesday.
The move comes about a month after U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi urban centres and redeployed to bases on the outskirts, in accordance with a bilateral security pact that requires all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
"It has been decided ... to lift all the concrete walls from the main and side streets of all Baghdad neighborhoods without exception and reopen them within 40 days," said an official decree attributed to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq in the last 18 months, and removal of the concrete walls is a show of confidence in Iraqi security forces' ability to manage without U.S. help. The number of civilians killed in July fell to 224 from 373 in June.
However, insurgents are still capable of conducting frequent, large-scale attacks -- a series of bombs outside five Shi'ite Muslim mosques killed 31 people in Baghdad last Friday.
The concrete barriers were installed after the U.S. invasion more than six years ago, and are particularly concentrated around the government and military Green Zone complex, U.S. and Iraqi bases, embassies and other high-security buildings.
Baghdad is a maze of blast walls, road blocks, razor wire, checkpoints and barricaded neighborhoods, making commuting a time-consuming nightmare for its inhabitants.
The number of concrete walls in the capital grew rapidly in 2006, often dividing districts, when sectarian violence threatened to plunge Iraq into all-out civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
(Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mohammed Abbas)