BAGHDAD Baghdad hasn't been this quiet in years. But the respite from bloodshed comes at a high price.
Up to 20 feet high in some sections.
Rows after rows of barrier walls divide the city into smaller and smaller areas that protect people from bombings, sniper fire and kidnappings. They also lead to gridlock, rising prices for food and homes, and complaints about living in what feels like a prison.
Baghdad's walls are everywhere. They have turned a riverside capital of leafy neighborhoods and palm-lined boulevards into a city of shadows that separate Sunnis from Shiites.
The walls block access to schools, mosques, churches, hotels, homes, markets and even entire neighborhoods almost anything that could be attacked. For many Iraqis, they have become the iconic symbol of the war.
"Maybe one day they will remove it," said Kareem Mustapha, a 26-year-old Sadr City resident who lives a five-minute walk from a wall built this spring in the large Shiite district.
"I don't know when, but it is not soon."
Indeed, new walls are still going up, the latest one around the northwestern Shiite neighborhood of Hurriyah, where thousands of Sunnis were slaughtered or expelled in 2006. They could well be around for years to come, enforcing the capital's fragile peace and enshrining its sectarian divisions.
Some walls are colorful, painted by young local artists with scenes depicting green pastures or the pomp and glory of Iraq's ancient civilizations.
Others are commercial, plastered with fliers advertising everything from the local kebab joint to seaside vacations in Iran or university degrees in Ukraine.
Still others are religious or political, with posters of popular clerics or graffiti hostile to the United States, Israel or most recently Iraq's prime minister.
Most are just bleak and gray, a reminder that danger lurks on the other side.
Dora, a one-time stronghold of Sunni insurgents in southern Baghdad, has so many walls and observation towers that some parts resemble a maze.
The district's notorious Moalimeen area, which until a year ago had been among the most dangerous places in the capital, is now accessible to pedestrians through revolving iron doors guarded by security troops.
"The walls have stopped gunmen from coming into the neighborhood," said Salim Ahmed, a 29-year-old oil refinery worker who lives and works in Dora. "But we also feel that we are in a prison and isolated from the rest of the city."
In some areas of Baghdad, the walls delay the movement of food and other essential supplies, raising prices. Where successful in preventing attacks and reducing crime, the walls push up the prices of homes.
The U.S. military defends the walls, crediting them with disrupting the movement and supply routes of the Sunni militants of al-Qaida in Iraq and the Shiite militiamen of the so-called special groups. It also disagrees with the notion that the walls are dividing the city alongside sectarian lines.
First introduced by the Americans in 2003 to protect their Green Zone headquarters, walls became much more widespread with the launch early last year of a major security campaign in Baghdad. In some walled-off neighborhoods, access was granted only on proof of residence or special ID cards.
Nowadays there's hardly a street in Baghdad without a wall or a cheaper substitute like barbed wire, palm-tree trunks, mounds of dirt or piles of rocks. They're even used to control pedestrian and vehicular traffic in risky areas.
In April, the U.S. military sealed off the southern section of Sadr City to put the American Embassy and Iraqi government offices out of range of rockets and mortars fired by Shiite militiamen.
The shelling has since stopped, and quick-thinking entrepreneurs rushed to lay claim to a spot against the wall to sell fruits and vegetables.
Because of the Sadr City wall, Mustapha's journey to work every day now involves a 15-minute walk and two minibus rides a major inconvenience considering Baghdad's unforgiving summer heat.
"It's both annoying and useful," Mustapha said. "It makes us feel like prisoners, but things have calmed down since they built it."
On the other side of the Tigris river, the U.S. military recently began constructing the new barrier around Hurriyah. The new wall ties into two existing walls to prevent Shiite extremists from coming and going at will and presumably from smuggling in arms.
"Our intent is to create a safer Hurriyah neighborhood, with markets that people will want to use without fear and roads safe for people travel," Maj. Frank Garcia, a spokesman for U.S. forces in western Baghdad, said Wednesday.
Construction crews broke soil in Hurriyah on June 12. Five days later, a truck bombing killed 63 people on a bustling commercial street. The U.S. military said a renegade Shiite militiaman ordered the attack to incite retaliatory Shiite violence against Sunnis. It said his intent was to disrupt Sunni resettlement in the district to maintain his extortion of real estate rental income.
In defending the Hurriyah walls, Garcia cited their "significant effect" in the northern Baghdad district of Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold where al-Qaida militants and other extremists once ruled the streets.
The old part of Azamiyah was sealed early last year in the first attempt to wall off an entire neighborhood.
News of the 3-mile-long wall caused an uproar among Sunnis across the country. Many spoke of a conspiracy by the Shiite-dominated government to suffocate Baghdad's most famous Sunni district, also home to the sect's most important shrine in Iraq, the Grand Imam mosque.
The wall has reduced violence significantly in Azamiyah, but the stringent security checks and the delays at crossing points frustrate many residents.
"The wall came to make us suffer," said Waleed Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father of four. "It takes my children an hour to get to school. I am often late for work, and there is never fewer than 10 cars in the line at the two crossing points."
The local Azamiyah economy, which suffered during the worst of the bloodshed, hasn't improved since the wall was built. The district's popular garment stores and kebab restaurants are still doing a fraction of the business they enjoyed before the war. Potential shoppers from other neighborhoods stay away, wary of the identity checks at the wall.
There are too few Azamiyah residents to sustain local commerce. About half of them fled the area in 2006 to escape the violence. Many have yet to return.