All blast walls designed to protect the streets of Baghdad will soon be taken off major thoroughfares, the Iraqi military said Wednesday, the latest in a government push to restore a sense of normalcy despite persistent bombings in the capital.
The removal of the ubiquitous concrete walls — which have for years been a bleak feature of daily life in Baghdad — would ease the flow of traffic and improve the appearance of the streets.
But security concerns remain amid continued violence.
In the latest attack, a roadside bomb killed five police officers patrolling in a mainly Sunni area in southern Baghdad on Tuesday.
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the city's operations command center, said all blast walls on Baghdad's main and secondary roads will be removed within the coming 40 days.
"No exception will be made any place in Baghdad," he said in a statement.
Al-Moussawi has made similar announcements before but Wednesday's statement on his Web site was the first to give a specific timeframe.
The removal of the walls is seen as an effort by the Iraqi government to demonstrate it has control of the security situation in Baghdad now that U.S. troops have withdrawn from urban areas. U.S. troops left Iraq's cities more than a month ago and plan to leave the country altogether by the end of 2011.
The Iraqis already have removed blast walls and reopened some streets in Baghdad, including the renowned Mutanabi book market, and the government is eager to shore up public confidence ahead of national elections scheduled for January.
The U.S. military, which erected most of the walls after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, said it had not yet received a request to take them down but expressed confidence in the Iraqi security forces, referred to as ISF.
"We haven't been tasked to remove barriers, nor have ISF requested that we assist with their removal at this time," said Maj. David Shoupe, a U.S. military spokesman. "The Iraqi Security Forces have demonstrated that they are capable of determining the security needs of their city and we remain ready to enable their operations at their request."
The walls, which weigh more than a ton apiece and stand about 12 feet tall, are designed to absorb the impact of bombings. rocket attacks and protect against gunfire. There are thousands in Baghdad alone, lining the highways, the streets to the international airport and surrounding important government offices, embassies, banks, hospitals and other potential targets.
They also have sealed off entire areas, including the mainly Sunni neighborhoods of Dora and Azamiyah and the Shiite district of Sadr City, causing critics to complain it was a form of segregation. It was uncertain how those walls would be effected as the Iraqi military statement only mentioned roads and did not elaborate.
Violence on the decline
There has been a dramatic decline in violence nationwide over the past two years, but worries remain that Iraqi security forces do not yet have a handle on the situation as bombings continue.
Last week, 29 people were killed by bombs in an apparently coordinated attacks on Shiite mosques across the capital city.
While insisting that the blast walls must come down, authorities in May quietly installed about 100 metal gates in the heavily policed Kazimiyah district along streets and alleyways leading to a major Shiite shrine. Security cameras were also being installed at the gates of the double-domed complex.
The street gates were put up following back-to-back suicide bombings near the shrine on April 24 that killed 71 people.
Outside the capital Wednesday, attacks were reported in the restive northern city of Mosul and in the western province of Anbar.
In Mosul, gunmen opened fire from a speeding car and killed one police officer. Police returned fire, killing two of the three attackers and injuring the third, who was arrested on the scene, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
At least one civilian was killed when the car bomb exploded in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi.
Anbar is a former insurgent stronghold that has been increasingly violent in recent weeks.