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THE WORLD

Security Berms Proving Piles of Trouble to Iraqis

U.S. forces say they put up the barrier to keep Samarra safe. Locals, however, feel trapped.

October 23, 2005|Noam N. Levey and Zaydan Khalaf | Special to The Times

SAMARRA, Iraq — When U.S. troops drove insurgents from this historic city northwest of Baghdad last fall, American commanders called the operation a model of efficiency and cultural sensitivity.

But a year later, Samarra has become a monument of a different sort.

Partially surrounded by a series of large earthen berms built by U.S. Army engineers this summer, Samarra's 200,000 mostly Sunni Arab residents have been walled in by U.S. forces who say they had to surround the city to keep it safe.

Security precautions for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum were "at the heart of all these actions," said Maj. Richard Goldenberg, a spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division, which has responsibility for Samarra and surrounding areas.

Goldenberg said the Army built the berms, some as high as 13 feet, to prevent insurgents from transporting weapons in and out of the city. "Our soldiers made every effort to minimize the impact the earthen berm would have on the Iraqi citizens of Samarra," he said, responding to written questions.

But some Iraqis in this area of the so-called Sunni Triangle see the berms as yet another imposition or, worse, a prelude to more violence.

U.S. forces built berms around Tall Afar before a September operation to flush insurgents from that northern Iraqi city.

In Samarra, more than 1,500 families had already left the city by mid-September, Iraqi police Maj. Khuidair Mohiyi said.

Among them was Saad Mahmoud Kassab, a 38-year-old butcher who moved his family to a nearby town. "I am afraid for my family and my children, who have suffered bad psychological effects from the situation in the city," Kassab said.

Other Samarra residents complained that the berms and road closures were strangling the city.

Nasir Khalil, a 33-year-old farmer, said he had stopped going to the city because it took him two hours to get through the checkpoints set up between the berms.

And Idris Shalal, a 33-year-old taxi driver, said his business had been devastated by the berms. "Working in this city is impossible nowadays," he said.

"Many merchants have deserted the city and gone to other cities or towns, or even abroad, all due to the miserable economic situation caused by this barrier," said Ali Hussein, a 45-year-old cloth merchant.

Samarra was not supposed to end up like this.

When U.S. forces swept into the city last October, organized insurgent resistance evaporated within a day as Iraqi forces helped protect sensitive sites such as the Golden Mosque, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines.

There were few casualties and relatively little damage, in contrast to offensives in Najaf and, later, Fallouja. Within days, military engineers returned to Samarra to rebuild water pumps, electricity lines and roads.

At the time, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the operation demonstrated how Iraq could be secured and rebuilt.

But the last 12 months in Samarra, if anything, have demonstrated the perils of declaring victory prematurely.

Since last October, U.S. and Iraqi forces here have come under repeated attacks by insurgents. Ten American soldiers have been killed in and around Samarra since August, when work on the berms began, the U.S. Central Command said.

Goldenberg expressed hope that the berms would help Iraqi forces disrupt insurgent activity.

"Driving insurgents from Samarra last year was a good first step toward security in the city," he said. "What has continued to hold Samarra back in its progress has been the multiple influences of crime and divisiveness within its city government and tribal leaders of the community. Good security is founded on good governance."

For Mahfouth Ahmed, a 45-year-old professor, the lack of either proved too much to bear. Last month, he moved his family out of Samarra to a house at Tikrit University, where he teaches. "I feel sad and ashamed," he said, "when I see the people moving out of the city."

Times staff writer Levey reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Khalaf from Samarra.

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