by Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, Aug. 19 (Xinhua) -- Three years ago, Um Adnan lost her14-year-old son when unknown gunmen driving in vehicles opened fire randomly on civilians at a crowded marketplace in her neighborhood in the western Baghdad district of Mansour.
That was at the peak of the sectarian strife in Iraq.
Soon after, concrete blast walls were set up throughout Iraq in a bid to separate rival Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. For people like Um Adnan, they saw the walls as guards for homes, shops and public services against bomb blasts and gunfire.
But the 35-year-old primary school teacher changed her mind five months ago when a bicycle bomb killed her nine-year-old daughter at the same market surrounded by the blast walls.
Being confident that security is improving, the Iraqi government decided to remove all the walls across the country within 40 days (by mid-September), according to a statement by the Baghdad operation command center's spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi in early August.
Seeing cranes tearing down the giant concrete walls, formed of large concrete slabs of about 1.5 meters wide and three to four meters high, Um Adnan said the removal is a justified step.
"Let them remove the walls, they are only choking us and they no more protect our people in the neighborhood," the black-clad woman said, eyes in tears.
"There is no need for walls any more. What we need is to fix the hearts and minds of our people to stop slaughtering innocents, not walls," she said choking back her tears.
In early 2007, the U.S. military pursued the strategy of "Gated Communities" putting up concrete walls and barriers at mixed Sunni and Shiite communities all over Baghdad, as the riverside Iraqi capital was trapped in a spiral of sectarian bloodshed.
In recent months, violence has dropped dramatically across the country, though insurgents are still capable of launching deadly attacks in Baghdad and some northern Iraqi cities.
Several deadly bombings have hit Baghdad and other cities since the U.S. troops' pullout from Iraqi cities and towns on June 30. On Wednesday, Two massive truck bombings near Iraqi ministries in Baghdad killed at least 75 and wounded 310 others.
Earlier on Aug. 10, 49 people were killed and more than 260 wounded in a series of deadly bomb attacks in Baghdad and Mosul, while just ten days after the U.S. troops' pullout, twin suicide bomb attacks at a policeman house in Mosul killed 35 and wounded 70 others.
In view of the approaching January parliamentary election, some U.S. and Iraqi officials have expected more attacks across the country.
In Iraqis' eyes, the blast walls, when protecting their homes from sectarian violence, are also symbols of prison-like life inside their enclosed areas.
In Baghdad alone, hundreds of thousands of walls are separating and surrounding the Sunni and Shiite enclaves, broken by narrow checkpoints where Iraqi soldiers monitor and search vehicles and even pedestrians.
The walls have turned Baghdad into dozens of replica Green Zones, dividing neighbor from neighbor and choking off normal commerce and communications.
Um Adnan admitted that security in Baghdad has improved and she no more expects attacks by militias in her neighborhood, therefore she believes that lifting the blast walls is a reasonable move.
Adel Hameed, a 29-year-old teacher, said "I feel like something heavy removed from my chest when they remove the walls, but I still feel in pain that my country had to pay very large amounts of money for those gray slabs to slice our city into Shiite and Sunni enclaves."
Hameed is glad of seeing his old neighbor in the other neighborhood again.
Ali Abdul Wahid, 32, a shop owner in Bab al-Sharji area in central Baghdad, is also happy, "I can't hide my pleasure when I see my old city is coming back and we can do brisk trade like the old days."
But he also expressed uncertainty and concern over the move. "I really wish that the Iraqi security forces know what they are doing," he said while looking at cranes lifting the slabs just a few meters in front of his shop by a busy main street.
"There are fears that armed groups would increase their deadly attacks and sectarian tension could rise ahead of the parliamentary election next January," Wahid said.
"The move is frightening me as opening the neighborhoods would encourage terrorists to attack the area as long as there would be easy targets," he said hinting that militias are believed to be keeping low profile and can hit from time to time.
But Staff Brigadier Hamad al-Jubouri, member of Baghdad Operations Command, told Xinhua that he is confident his forces are capable of protecting the people.
"We trust our forces, they are now better trained and equipped and their goals are very clear to them, and even if there may be a degree of risk, it is certainly in our account," he said.
"We know very well the capability of our troops and we know exactly where we are going through," said Jubouri who was a brigade commander in the former Iraqi army during Saddam regime.
"We also realize that the eyes of Iraqis are looking on us. We are the main hope for them to start a new page of reconstruction, particularly after the withdrawal of the U.S. troops," he said. "We have sworn to protect our people from terrorism and to safeguard the future of Iraq," he added.
The Iraqi security commanders believe that insurgents are not capable to carry out large-scale attacks any more, therefore, security walls are no more the suitable technique to face such threat.
Najeeb al-Jubouri, a teacher at Baghdad University, hailed the walls' removal after U.S. troops' pullout, though he admitted that there is risk behind the move.
"If you want the people to feel that life is back to normal, you have to remove the walls. It will give a clear signal of success for Baghdad security efforts," Jubouri said.
Meanwhile, Jubouri expressed his concern that lifting the blast walls would make it easy for militias or suicide bombers to carry out deadly attacks against civilians at crowded neighborhoods.
"It is a kind of gambling by the government, which I believe they have to take it, because the walls are paralyzing the progress of the city," he said.
With the removal of the walls, prospects of a boom in the business of markets, restaurants and others will see the light again and life will come back to the dusty streets of the neighborhoods for the first time after more than two years, Jubouri said.
Like other Iraqis, Jubouri is hopeful to see a new face for Baghdad as "lifting the walls would pave the way for a new page of rebuilding Iraq's economic and cultural life."