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Security Concerns Transform Iraqi Capital


The streets of Baghdad are increasingly becoming lined with tall, off-white cement blast walls as Iraqi businesses and foreigners fortify their positions against attacks from anti-coalition forces. In this page from his reporter's notebook, VOA Middle East Correspondent Greg LaMotte tells us what life is like in the Iraqi capital as it goes through its cement transformation.

Traffic in Baghdad is increasingly becoming unbearable, and there are two reasons.

First, with tens-of-thousands of coalition troops in the capital, there are more vehicles on the road. And, second Baghdad is slowly becoming a city of cement.

Cement barricades, and meters-high cement blast walls are just about everywhere, causing traffic to screech to a halt.

It seems as though Baghdad is transforming itself into a cement fortress in an effort to protect against armed attacks.

For instance, most of the major hotels in Baghdad are surrounded by cement blast walls that are five meters high. And, getting to the hotels means one of two things. Either drive through a maze of cement barriers and checkpoints where the vehicle is searched for weapons and bombs, or park the car a few blocks away and walk.

As a result of the blast walls, streets in front of the hotels have become so narrow drivers often have to have to put their car in reverse to allow other vehicles to pass by.

Hotel owners are very angry about the cement walls because, in most cases, they were forced to pay for them or risk losing business. Many hotels in Baghdad are thought to be targets for terrorists.

The day after last month's suicide car bomb attack against the Baghdad Hotel that resulted in eight deaths, the hotel was completely surrounded by the tall cement blast walls.

In a matter of a week, most hotels in Baghdad were also encased in cement.

Several hotel owners, who declined to reveal their names and who asked that the names of their hotels not be divulged, said they were forced to pay as much as $20,000 for the cement walls and barricades. Otherwise, they said, they would have lost business and some of their employees who are fearful of attack would have quit.

The area known as the green zone surrounding the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, the convention center, the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad and the al-Rasheed Hotel, is completely surrounded by cement blast walls. The main road adjacent to the area is lined with the walls for several kilometers. And, this week, coalition authorities began closing the road between 7:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

That is because the al-Rasheed hotel was hit by as many as 10 rockets last month while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying there. And, during the past few days rockets or mortars have hit inside the main U.S. military headquarters. Military officials say cement walls cannot stop rockets, but they believe keeping vehicles far away at night might prevent such attacks.

A trip to the convention center means parking more than a kilometer away, then walking along a barbed wire-lined sidewalk that leads through a maze past four fortified military checkpoints where at least twice, and sometimes three times visitors are physically searched for weapons.

Police stations, a favorite target of anti-coalition forces, have also become small fortresses with cement barricades, barbed wire and blast walls. The same is true at the U.N. headquarters that was attacked by a suicide car bomber who killed 22 people in August.

Cement walls have become so prevalent in Baghdad, many Iraqis privately joke that one day all of Baghdad will be surrounded by cement walls. And they muse, if you want a job these days just go to the cement factory.

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