By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Feb 6 (Reuters) - To some Iraqis they are the reason it is safe to shop. To others they are like big jails.
Nothing symbolises the year-long security offensive in Baghdad more vividly than the thousands of tonnes of concrete walls that have been erected around dozens of markets, public places and even entire neighbourhoods.
But as violence has fallen in the capital, some Iraqis have begun debating whether the 12-foot (3.5-metre) high walls should come down. Does the inconvenience and ugliness of the grey barriers outweigh the protection and peace of mind they provide?
Most seem to want the walls to remain at markets and even be strengthened — especially after two female bombers killed 99 people at pet markets last Friday in attacks blamed on al Qaeda.
"I don’t mind having the walls for years if they keep the market secure. Many of my neighbours and relatives are still in hospital because of explosions," said Um Haitham, a woman in her 60s as she shopped in the Sadriya market in central Baghdad.
Added Abu Mohammed, 45: "I don’t like these walls, they make me sick. But if you ask me, no matter how much inconvenience they cause, I prefer them because they provide security."
The walls are designed to stop suicide bombers ramming cars filled with explosives into crowded places and to keep out gunmen by setting up security posts at entry points.
During 2006 and into the first half of 2007, suicide car and truck bombers turned Baghdad’s popular outdoor markets into killing fields until the U.S. military began putting up the concrete blast walls to block access to vehicles.
The U.S. military said about 65 markets and some 50 neighbourhoods were either partially or fully protected by concrete blast walls throughout the greater Baghdad area. All are integrated with security checkpoints.
"FUNDAMENTAL" TO SECURITY
While walls are good at stopping cars, suicide vest bombers can still slip through. Some markets are also set up on sidewalks, like the pet markets, making them harder to protect.
But Major-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad, said the walls were "absolutely fundamental" to security and there was no plan to tear any down.
"Who would want to remove these walls? Can you imagine a house without a fence. These walls will remain until we have imposed security in all of Baghdad," Moussawi told Reuters.
U.S. and Iraqi officials blame most car bombings on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, saying the militant group is trying to tip the country into all-out sectarian civil war.
Until the launch of the Baghdad security plan on Feb. 14 last year, most of the concrete blast walls were used to protect government buildings and some major hotels.
Protecting markets and other public places became a key element of the Baghdad security offensive, which involved the deployment of an extra 30,000 U.S. troops.
CONTROVERSARY AT ADHAMIYA
But controversy erupted in April when the U.S. military began putting up a 5-km (3-mile) wall around Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab neighbourhood surrounded on three sides by Shi’ite communities and where bloody clashes were common.
Residents complained the walls would isolate them and sharpen tensions between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs. Those sentiments are little changed nearly a year later.
"These walls have enhanced sectarianism. It is painful to see them without knowing when they will go," said Ahmed Mustafa, 50, an accountant, adding the walls created traffic jams.
The U.S. military has defended itself against criticism of the construction of walls around neighbourhoods including Adhamiya, saying the work was approved by the government.
It has said the aim was to protect some residential areas and not an attempt to divide Baghdad along sectarian lines.
"The additions have reduced the fears of Baghdad residents in all areas where they work, congregate and sleep," said Major Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad.
In an attempt to make the drab-looking walls less of an eyesore, the authorities last year brought in painters to spruce up the barriers in central Baghdad with colourful scenes of meadows, horses, camels and marshes.
To Qusai Ali, 32, the paint job has had little effect.
"They are trying to fool us with these drawings to pretend they are nice ... They are not just content with imprisoning people, they want to put whole cities in prison," he said.
(Writing by Dean Yates, Editing by Dominic Evans)