Friday, April 20, 2007

Baghdad's Green Line?

Amid worsening violence in Baghdad, the U.S. military is resorting to an age-old tactic: lots of concrete.

U.S. soldiers are building a three-mile wall to protect a Sunni Arab enclave surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods in a Baghdad area "trapped in a spiral of sectarian violence and retaliation," the military said.

When the wall is finished, the minority Sunni community of Azamiyah, on the eastern side of the Tigris River, will be gated, and traffic control points manned by Iraqi soldiers will be the only entries, the military said.

This is an urban version of a tactic used in western Iraq, where troublesome cities have been surrounded by sand berms. It's had mixed success there -- reducing U.S. casualties, but not doing a whole lot to tamp down sectarian passions inside the town.

While this isn't exactly good news, in the end it's just another tool. The goal all along has been to tamp down the violence so that lasting security and infrastructure has a chance to establish itself. If a (temporary) wall makes that job easier, okay.

Still, can anyone say "Green Line"? That was the name of the unofficial dividing line between Muslim and Christian sections of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. Initially a makeshift and informal line marking a "no-man's land" between rival militias, in places it developed into a fortified barrier that lasted for 15 years and became a symbol of the war and the city, and continues to affect the development of Beirut and the psyche of its residents.

The lesson, I think, is that temporary barriers have a way of becoming permanent if the underlying reason for the separation is not addressed. In addition, the line itself can become a focus, reason and justification for the separation. And the longer the separation goes on, the harder it is to reconnect the two halves when the wall finally comes down.

So let's hope this is truly a temporary measure, and not a sign that we're settling into a 15-year war.

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