By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD, April 23 (Reuters) - A plan by U.S. soldiers to protect a Sunni enclave in Baghdad by building a wall around it descended into total confusion on Monday after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a halt to construction.
Many residents in Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab area surrounded on three sides by Shi’ite communities, had complained bitterly that the concrete barriers of the 5-km (3-mile) wall would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions.
The U.S. military and the Iraqi authorities appear to have been caught off guard by hostility to the two-week-old project. Some residents in Adhamiya have angrily likened it to a barrier Israel is building in the occupied West Bank.
Neither the U.S. ambassador to Iraq nor a senior U.S. military spokesman would say if work would stop.
Iraq’s spokesman for the U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad implied work would go on, saying in translated remarks at a news conference that "construction of security barriers across Baghdad will continue without exception".
At the same news conference, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said erection of barriers around Baghdad’s markets and neighbourhoods was approved by Iraq’s government.
"These safety barriers are an initiative of the Iraqi army and were approved by the government of Iraq ... These barriers are temporary shields to protect Iraqi people from murderers who try to drive car bombs into their neighbourhoods," he said.
Like U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker at an earlier news conference in Baghdad, Fox sidestepped direct questions on whether construction at Adhamiya would stop.
Fox said "local concerns" would be taken into account but that it was up to the Iraqis to make modifications to barriers. The Iraqi military spokesman, Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi, said residents generally wanted barriers to protect them.
On Monday, hundreds of residents held a street march in Adhamiya against the concrete walls, which will be up to 12 feet (3.5 metres) tall.
"A barrier around Adhamiya means house arrest for its families," read one banner.
One man sitting in a cafe toying with his prayer beads said: "Adhamiya will be isolated from all the other areas. We’ll be like the Palestinians, and we do not accept that."
Speaking in Cairo on Sunday evening at the start of an Arab tour, Maliki said he objected to the Adhamiya wall.
"I asked yesterday that it be stopped and that alternatives be found to protect the area," Maliki said in his first public comments on the issue.
The U.S. military has said it is erecting tall concrete walls to protect at least five Baghdad neighbourhoods in what are being called "gated communities".
The military has said the aim was to protect certain residential areas from gunmen as part of the security crackdown, which is seen as a final attempt to halt all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
The Americans say it is not an attempt to seal off parts of the city, but to control access.
That message was repeated by ambassador Crocker:
"The intention is not to segregate communities," he said.
"In some areas where there are clear faultlines it seems to us that a line of barriers makes good security sense. But all of this has to be a step-by-step process. It has to take into account how areas .. and the Iraqi government want to proceed. You may see evolution."
Baghdad is already largely divided along sectarian lines after the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 sparked a wave of violence that reshaped the city’s fabric.
Sunnis now mainly live on the west side of the Tigris River and Shi’ites on the east, although there are some mixed areas.
Baghdad was founded as a walled city in the 8th century to protect it from foreign invaders. (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy, Ross Colvin and Ibon Villelabeitia)