Baghdad Wall Falls, Neighborhood Celebrates

Fifteen months ago, a Baghdad neighborhood was so dangerous that a concrete barrier was built to separate the Sunni and Shiite sides. Security has improved, and the barrier is coming down. Two communities that were once bitter enemies are reconciling.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here's another sign of change in Iraq. During the worst of the sectarian killings in Baghdad, concrete barriers went up all over the city. Now that security has improved at least one wall has come down. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro attended a reconciliation celebration between two neighborhoods that were once bitter enemies.

Colonel CRAIG COLLIER (10th Mountain Division): We're in the middle, right here, of what used to be that fault line between the Sunni side in al-Fadl(ph) and the Shia side in Abu Safen(ph).

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colonel Craig Collier with the 10th Mountain Division points to where a series of blast walls had stood for the past 18 months. Earlier in the day they were carted away on flatbed trucks. Colonel Collier, who oversees U.S. military operations west Baghdad, says it is the first barrier to have come down in the city.

Colonel COLLIER: Oh, it says to me there is hope. These two people were fighting each other a year ago. And now they're getting together on their own to bring down a wall that separated the two communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To celebrate, the two sides met to break the traditional fast that takes place during the holy month of Ramadan.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You want soup? It's good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Huge platters of rice and lamb were consumed on long tables set up in the middle of the road, funded by grant from USAID. While the scene is festive, nearby buildings lie shuttered and badly damaged. Mustafa Raji is a grocer from Shiite Abu Safen. He says he hopes the removal of the wall will help revitalize the economy here.

Mr. MUSTAFA RAJI (Grocer, Abu Safen): (Through translator) This area used to be one of the biggest commercial zones in Iraq. Thousands of families were living and working in this particular street. I became a war zone. Now our area is safe again, and this is a very beautiful gathering that we hope reflects the new reality of this place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Up until last year, these adjoining neighborhoods were two of the most dangerous in Baghdad. Sunni insurgents in Fadl battled the Mahdi Army militia, loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in Abu Safen. Like many neighborhoods in Baghdad, a wall was put up to separate the two sides. US funded paramilitaries, Shiite and Sunni, known as the Sons of Iraq now secure their respective areas. Khaled(ph) Ibrahim is the head of the Sunni Sons of Iraq in Fadl. He says, without the help of the Americans, who mediated between the sides, this never would have happened.

Mr. KHALED IBRAHIM (Head, Sunni Sons of Iraq, al-Fadl): (Through translator) The Iraqi government unfortunately, has never given any help to unify these two neighborhoods. This was a divided heart but now the barrier has been removed and it's one heart again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Still, the removal of the wall is more a symbolic act than a real integration of the two communities. The Shiites Sons of Iraq leader in Abu Safen, Dia Fabul(ph) says they will strictly control the crossing between the two neighborhoods.

Mr. DIA FABUL (Leader, Shiite Sons of Iraq, Abu Safen): (Through translator) There will be joint security checkpoints. People will undergo a strict check in order to pass. We will screen their identifications and do a background check.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The physical barrier may have come down but the divide here still exists. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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