The LA Times looks at The Sandi Group, an American company cashing in building private fortresses for contractors in Baghdad, and begs the question: is anti-terrorist design really the way to achieve national security? [related: Defensive Walls in Baghdad are Canvas for Art, At the Border...]
Baghdad's Blast Walls Protect, Annoy
Concrete slabs shield foreign firms from bombs, but also disrupt traffic and look bad.
By Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed
Times Staff Writers
April 13, 2005
BAGHDAD Ã¢â‚¬â€ Standing side by side, dozens of 12-foot-tall concrete slabs loom over the median of an apartment-lined avenue near the Tigris River here.
The 100-foot-long barrier has sprung up to shield a side street from a potential car bomb. At the entrance to the street, more slabs stand next to a sandbagged guardhouse. Half a dozen guards, all carrying AK-47s and some wearing body armor, patrol the entrance.
This is not the Green Zone, the fortified district the U.S. military established in a bend of the Tigris River after the fall of Saddam Hussein two years ago.
The Sandi Group, an American company participating in a multimillion-dollar contract to advise the Iraqi government on law enforcement, has fashioned its own green zone across the river, one of more than 100 such private fortresses, large and small, across the city.
Although the U.S. military provides a safety cordon for the interim Iraqi government, the U.S. and British embassies and large contractors such as Parsons Corp. of Pasadena, many vulnerable foreign organizations do business outside its checkpoints.
When the insurgency's campaign of bombings and assassinations cast the city into a state of fear in mid-2003, it was up to the firms to provide their own security, spawning a private fortifications industry. Concrete blast walls, trucked around the capital in sections and hoisted into place by cranes, now surround many of the city's landmark buildings and lesser-known streets.
These compounds have angered and annoyed Baghdad residents, cutting them off from foreign offices and further obstructing the city's increasingly clogged streets.
"They closed most of the important roads," groused a cabdriver who would give only his nickname, Abu Sabbah. "Now the traffic is terrible. I think that the solution is to start removing these barriers and open some streets."
From a design and city-planning view, the walls are disastrous, said Mohammed Ridha, vice chairman of the architecture department at Baghdad University.
They have destroyed the city's continuity and are beginning to afflict the suburbs too, as homeowners, taking their cue from commercial interests, are blockading their houses, he said.
"When we need to improve the security situation of any building now, we put these blocks, any kind, any height, any amount of them," Ridha said. "We are feeling now these concrete blocks are reaching into our homes, so maybe we feel now we are alone in our homes."
The new architecture of fortification has a haphazard form that belies its careful organization. The concrete slabs, 4 or more feet wide and up to 18 feet high, are generally lined across an entry street between buildings whose facades complete the perimeter. At some hotel complexes, hundreds of slabs are strung together in sweeping arcs that swallow up lanes from major boulevards.
They were deployed without regard to aesthetics. The dull gray blocks are often out of kilter, tilting over curbs or anything else in their way, and usually enclose a few nearby dwellings and businesses.
Dozens of embassies outside the Green Zone have been fortified. Formerly posh hotels humbled by economic sanctions and war have remade themselves as hardened bunkers for news organizations unwilling to be hindered by the Green Zone's crowded checkpoints.
The twice-bombed Baghdad Hotel downtown, the Hamra Hotel and the Palestine-Ishtar complex Ã¢â‚¬â€ where the foreign media holed up during the war Ã¢â‚¬â€ are all fortresses today, built either privately or with U.S. funds.
Iraq's diverse political parties aren't immune to the need for security, either. Two compounds for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, followers of Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, sit behind barricades on the banks of the Tigris south of the Green Zone. Each has been bombed, resulting in seven deaths of guards and bystanders but no party officials. Both camps were subsequently beefed up.
The Kurdish diplomatic corps and media, the Shiite Islamic Dawa Party, and former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party have fortified headquarters.
The proliferation of blast walls has fed Baghdad's always-active rumor mill. It is said that the Baghdad Hotel houses the CIA Ã¢â‚¬â€ a contention the U.S. denies Ã¢â‚¬â€ or Israeli entrepreneurs, or a former head of Iraqi intelligence now working for the United States.
Other rumors link a Kurdish company that manufactures blast walls to Israeli ownership. Disgruntled Iraqis also say that the demand for security walls has diverted concrete from construction projects, forcing contractors to supplement the country's historically ample supply with imports from Syria and Jordan.
True or not, the rumors blend with widespread animus toward the most flamboyant of Baghdad's blast walls, three miles forming a continuous rampart along the Green Zone's river frontage.
At about $600 per slab, even a modest "fort" costs tens of thousands of dollars to build.
Small armies must be recruited to staff the checkpoints 24 hours a day. The Hamra, which has a medium-sized compound, hired about 40 guards, all licensed by the U.S. military or the Iraqi Interior Ministry to carry automatic weapons.
To reach the Hamra, a block off the busy boulevard that leads to Baghdad University, a car negotiates a sharp turn to pull between a guardhouse and a 10-foot-high slab.
Before it can pass, guards with assault rifles must raise a crossing gate and withdraw a tire-ripping "dragon's tooth," a hairbrush of spikes welded to a sewer pipe.
Once past the guardhouse, the car zigzags around more slabs to a second guard, who inspects the chassis for bombs with a mirror.
The hotels, companies and embassies find a ready supply of guards among the 400,000 men put out of work nearly two years ago when occupation authorities disbanded the Iraqi army.
Between patting down pedestrians at the Palestine, a guard who declined to give his name for fear of losing his job said he was paid about $200 a month, far more than his former military salary, but not as much as guards for large firms such as American contractor KBR.
He said he needed the job to support his family, but he said he also took pride in doing work he believed would help stabilize his country.
In the regulatory vacuum of postwar Iraq, no city permits or inspections are required to establish a fort. A single property owner or well-heeled tenant can take the initiative. Usually, the added value of the security gives other apartment and business owners an economic incentive to go along.
"The leases of the houses inside this compound are now much more," said Mohammed Sadek Yassin, who owns a building inside the fortress guarded by Sandi Group. "These organizations and others are trying to rent other houses inside."
Inside the city's private blast walls, a kind of normal life goes on beside the comings and goings of foreigners. About 30 Iraqi families still live in the Sandi Group compound, Yassin said. Children play in dirty streets, women in black abayas carry shopping bags home from the market, and small businesses persist despite the obvious disadvantages.
The security is generally welcomed by Iraqis who live or work inside the walls, even if not with much cheer.
"I think it's really good for our safety," said Ali Ishan, an 18-year-old chef at Restaurant Happy Time in the Palestine-Ishtar complex.
But during the lunch hour, not a person sat at his cloth-covered outdoor tables.
"It's always that way since the walls went up," Ishan said.
Outside the walls, that ambivalence hardens into resentment.
"If you ask anyone, they say this is not acceptable to see these barricades in front of my shop," said Adil Mohammed, the manager of a storefront grocery across the street from the Palestine.
Besides harming business, he said, the walls are demoralizing and destroy the beauty of his city.
One day, the soldiers and the reporters will go. If they should leave a more peaceful society behind, Baghdad will have thousands of useless slabs to get rid of. Perhaps they'll just be thrown on top of the mounds of building rubble already strewn about.
But Ridha, the architecture professor, sees a brighter future. Architects around the world have found ways to incorporate concrete security structures into attractive designs, he said. With proper standards, Baghdad's blocks could be used effectively in buildings, public landscape and highways, without offending the city's rich heritage.
"It's possible," he said with a quizzical shrug.