BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A string of bombings is stirring growing unease among Iraqis as the government, confident it can secure the country against violence while U.S. troops pull back, insists on removing rows of blast walls from Baghdad’s streets.
The towering concrete walls mushroomed throughout Iraq at the height of the sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion, separating rival Sunni and Shi’ite neighborhoods and protecting homes, public buildings and shops from bomb blasts.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from city centers at the end of June, and ahead of an election in January that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is contesting on a platform of Iraqi sovereignty, the government ordered all blast walls to be removed from the main streets of Baghdad by mid-September.
“It’s a gamble on the part of the Iraqi government to do this because the security situation is still fragile,” said shopkeeper Ameer Dushi as officials on Saturday opened al-Rasheed Street, a busy commercial thoroughfare.
“The blast walls are a black mark in Iraq’s history, but removing them is a big risk at this time. It opens the door to terrorist groups who want to undermine Baghdad’s security.”
The flow of traffic in Baghdad’s chaotic streets has improved since the T-shaped walls began to tumble, and shops sealed off from customers have emerged into the sunlight, giving what officials hope will be a boost to economic activity.
The once impregnable Green Zone district housing the Iraqi government and foreign embassies has become partially accessible to ordinary Iraqis after a road cutting through it was reopened.
“The removal of the blast walls will restore Baghdad’s beauty and bring life back to Baghdad’s streets,” said Major-General Abboud Qanbar, head of Baghdad’s security forces.
“The removal won’t affect security, we’re not worried about that,” he said, adding that blast walls would still be used to protect essential and sensitive public facilities and buildings.
“We have taken a courageous and brave decision on the basis of our confidence in the security forces. We will open Baghdad’s streets by the deadline.”
But a series of bomb blasts since late July in Baghdad and in the volatile north, where relations between semi-autonomous Kurds and the Shi’ite Arab-led government are strained, is causing some to wonder if the removal of the walls is premature.
In the latest attack, two suicide bombers killing 21 people in a cafe near the northern city of Mosul on Thursday.
“Getting rid of the blast walls allows the government to show the Iraqi people and all the world that there is security. But there is a difference between propaganda about the state of security and fact,” said Ali Abdul Husain, a bookstore owner.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they expect more attacks as January parliamentary polls approach, by groups hoping to reignite sectarian killings that almost tore Iraq apart.
Attacks may also be meant to undermine Maliki’s efforts to present himself as a nationalist who brought stability to Iraq.
“The government is capable of removing the blast walls in the set time period, but it can’t control the security situation once they’re gone,” said Haider Majid, a shop worker.
Editing by Michael Christie