Walling off vulnerable Baghdad neighborhoods is critical to breaking the cycle of revenge killings in Iraq, according to U.S. Army General David Petraeus' counter-insurgency advisor.
Portable barriers installed between neighborhoods enable U.S. and Iraqi forces to limit the nighttime movements of death squads and insurgents, says Dr. David Kilcullen, a lieutenant colonel in the Australian army reserve who has spent years studying terror groups and methods for defeating them.
"What we've tried to do is put in a series of blocks to stop that cycle [of violence] from running, and if it does run, to reduce the number of people killed in attacks" by limiting the scale and frequency of attacks, Kilcullen explains.
He uses the term "gated community" to describe the walled-off neighborhoods. The first to be enclosed was Sunni community of Adhamiyah in April. The decision to wall of a particular area is made by the U.S. battalions on the ground.
Not everyone was thrilled by the Adhamiyah barrier. "This will deepen the sectarian strife and only serve to abort efforts aimed at reconciliation," a Sunni shop owner told The New York Times.
Noting such objections, Kilcullen stresses that the walls are temporary. He compares them to tourniquets. "It's something you do when patient is bleeding to death. But you don't leave it there forever or it causes damage."
"We had 130 bodies turning up per day in Baghdad due to sectarian violence last year. Now it's around 20," he says, adding that the negative psychological effects of the barriers are outweighed by "the negative effects of people getting killed."
Barriers are only one tactic of the new U.S. approach in Iraq, Kilcullen says. He also cites smaller, dispersed patrol bases, a renewed reconstruction effort and stepped-up air patrols, all intended to "reduce feelings of intimidation" among everyday Iraqis and therefore "create more space for compromise and political reconciliation."
"It's a multi-year activity that we're talking about," he cautions. "We are going to get there, but it's not going to look like the United States."
One of the major remaining obstacles is creating a "single narrative" for Iraq that is embraced by the Iraqi government and its international partners. "We are still in the process of changing form one way of doing business to another. The single narrative the Americans used to pursue was 'they stand up as we stand down.' That was not terribly comforting to Iraqis."
Now the message is that the coalition is focused on creating security, according to Kilcullen. And sometimes, he says, that means building a wall.
-- David Axe