BAGHDAD – Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr strongly condemned construction of a wall around a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, calling for demonstrations against the plan as a sign of “the evil will” of American “occupiers.”
The remarks, in a statement read by an aide, were the first by the anti-American cleric since the U.S. military announced last week that it was building a three-mile long 12-foot high concrete wall in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold that has been targeted by mortar and rocket attacks by Shiite militiamen.
Many Sunnis also protested the plan, saying they felt like they were being herded into a prison. Protesters in Azamiyah carried banners Monday with slogans such as “No to the sectarian wall” and “Azamiyah children want to see Baghdad without walls.”
In the statement, al-Sadr said the protests showed that Iraqis reject “the sectarian, racist and unjust wall that seeks to divide” Sunnis and Shiites.
“I am confident that such honorable voices will bring down the wall,” he said.
Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was blamed for much of the sectarian killing of Sunnis, has been trying to make overtures to the Sunni minority and draw a difference between ordinary Sunnis and extremists who target Shiites.
“This wall shows the evil will of the occupier and its sectarian and terrorist projects against our people,” al-Sadr said in the statement. “We the people of Iraq will defend Azamiyah and other neighborhoods that you (Americans) want to segregate from us. We will stand hand in hand with you (Sunnis) to demonstrate and protect our holy land.”
The U.S. and Iraqi military said they plan to construct barriers in other neighborhoods too to protect people from sectarian death squads.
A leading Sunni Muslim group accused the Shiite-led government of turning a blind eye to sectarian death squads allegedly run by the Mahdi Army.
“The return of the militias and death squads to target Sunni areas, the attempts to chain these areas with walls to make them soft targets for militias, and the arrest campaigns against Sunnis, especially mosque imams, are all part of a plan to empty Baghdad of Sunnis,” the Conference for the People of Iraq said in a statement.
The group, which is led by prominent Sunni politician Adnan al-Dulaimi, called on the government to stop what it called “sectarian projects” that target Sunnis, warning “our patience is running out.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he would not allow “a separation wall,” but then he said that the subject would be discussed.
He said he would not rule out all barriers, such as barbed wire. Following al-Maliki’s comments, the new American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, defended the barrier plan, saying it was an effort to protect the Sunni community from surrounding Shiite areas, not to segregate it. Crocker said security measures were implemented in coordination with the Iraqi government.
“Obviously, we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister,” he said, although he did not say construction would halt.
Iraq’s chief military spokesman indicated that some type of barrier would go up, saying al-Maliki was responding to exaggerated reports about the wall.