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An Iraqi City Divided, and Defined, By Its Walls

BAGHDAD -- Sadiya Street stretches a few feet beyond the neighborhood that bears its name. That is, on a map. But the geography of Baghdad is determined by masonry, a maze of towering concrete barriers that isolate, segregate and demarcate.

In Sadiya, once one of Baghdad's roughest locales, the walls also enclose, like a prison, and at 2:30 p.m., Ali Abdullah parked his bedraggled brown taxi at the end of the line of vehicles that stretches a mile from the sole entrance to the neighborhood on his way home.

"Maybe in a year, instead of you hitting me or me hitting you, we'll all say, 'Peace upon you,' and you'll put your hand in mine. But not yet." Unshaven and tired, he smiled. "Until then, if you're facing the prospect of death, you'll go ahead and settle for a fever."

Abdullah put his car in drive, shifted the prosthetic limb that replaced his right leg, amputated more than 20 years ago in the war with Iran, and nudged his car forward, before waiting again.

"Leave the walls for now," he said glumly, as he glanced at the story-high barricades, cluttered with a melange of posters for next month's provincial elections.

Almost every Arab capital seems to have its own notion of geography. Class rules Cairo, where the rich have forsaken the downtown area for gleaming castles built on sand in the desert. Beirut's myriad sects make the city claustrophobic, its borders drawn by the portraits and iconography of feudal leaders. Damascus's diversity is blurred by a Baathist vision of Arab nationalism, washing the city of color. Capitalist excess is Dubai's equivalent.

The geography of Baghdad is walls, built one barrier at a time, along streets and around neighborhoods, through intersections and over bridges. For some, the gray of freshly poured concrete long ago gave way to the city's more dominant ochers. Many are painted. Others are decorated with plastic flowers, gathering dust. A few bear murals.

But they remain walls, dividing a city from itself, in an attempt to stanch violence.

"Welcome to the city of Sadiya," the wall here reads, with no sense of irony.

"The walls are the most hated thing. I swear to God, they're despised," said Hussein Abbas Hassan, plastering posters for a candidate with his two sons, Yasser and Samir. "I wish God would descend from heaven and tear them down."

Until He does, though, they serve a purpose. Since morning, Hassan and his sons had circled the neighborhoods of Sadiya and nearby Dora, gluing 2,000 posters to the concrete. "As long as they're here, we'll put the posters on them."

The minutes passed, and Abdullah, the taxi driver, crept forward, past their posters and others. There were ads for a Kurdish party, devout Shiite candidates, tribal leaders and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The solution is Iraqi," one read. "Iraq for Iraqis," declared another. Campaign promises spilled across the wall: hospitals and clinics, a greater role for women in politics, a renaissance of art and an age of justice.

Ahead of Abdullah, a car had broken down. Behind, a driver idly pushed his stalled taxi.

A young boy went window to window selling Syrian-made tissues for about $1.

Ninety percent, Abdullah said. That was his sense of security in a city that, by most standards, remains jarringly violent. In comparison to the recent past, Baghdad is witnessing a welcome respite. "It's nothing!" a cafe vendor shouted the other day after hearing a car bomb, then watching plumes of smoke rise over the Tigris River. "Nothing!"

"It's tough on us. Sometimes you feel like you're suffocating," Abdullah said, tapping his prosthetic leg for emphasis. "But if it's the cost of security, what can we do."

The line grew as the workday ended at ministries, cars snaking far behind Abdullah's. Many people chose taxis that dropped them off at the checkpoint's entrance, passing Iraqi soldiers manning the checkpoint, border and point of entry to Sadiya. They passed wanted posters that ranged from $50,000 (for Abu Hussein al-Fatlawi and Wathiq Abdel-Jabbar al-Thujyal) down to $1,000 (for Salih Shabaan, also known as Abu Mustafa.)

Some residents had gotten out of their cars to plead their case not to wait in line: There were only women in the car. They felt ill. They were in a hurry.

"There's only one line!" barked Lt. Hamed, who was manning the checkpoint.

A policeman in a tattered uniform approached him. The policeman was a soldier, he said, and soldiers don't have to stand in line. "If I was a civilian, okay, but I'm not."

"The command is not in my hands," the lieutenant said.

"But the order is wrong," the policeman pleaded. "Soldiers don't have to stand in line."

"Am I a liar?" Hamed asked him, his tone sharpening. "One line!"

Abdullah had finally arrived at the checkpoint in his taxi. The wait can take an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more. On this day, he caught a break. He was home before 3:30 p.m.

Smiling again, he cited a proverb.

"Be optimistic that good will come," he said, "and you will find it."

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post


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