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U.S. and Iraqi officials overlook criticism of security barrier

“A big prison” is a construction of a security barrier to separate a Sunni enclave from Shiite areas in Baghdad defended by .S. and Iraqi officials on Monday. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of the neighborhood to oppose.

Meanwhile, bombings around Iraq killed at least 27 people and wounded nearly 60, authorities said, including a suicide attack in an Iraqi restaurant just outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the barrier in Azamiyah was a temporary measure aimed at protecting the population and he noted similar measures had been taken elsewhere in the capital as part of a nearly 10-week-old security operation.

"The Baghdad security plan includes setting up temporary and movable barriers," al-Moussawi said. "The main aim of these barriers is to protect civilians and to guarantee that security forces are in control and prevent terrorists from moving between areas."

U.S. spokesman Rear Adm. Mark Fox, meanwhile, said during the joint news conference that the security barriers were being built with permission from the Iraqi government and the military would adjust its plans according to their wishes.

The U.S. military announced last week that it was building a three-mile (five-kilometer) long concrete wall in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold whose residents have often been the victims of retaliatory mortar attacks by Shiite militants following bombings usually blamed on Sunni insurgents.

But U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said Monday that those dimensions were subject to change, now that some Iraqis were expressing concern about the barrier.

"Obviously we're going to review those. What local commanders versus high level military officials agreed to here could be different," Garver said.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker also stressed it was an Iraqi decision.

"Obviously we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister," Crocker said at his first news conference since assuming his post last month. "I'm not sure where we are right now concerning our discussions on how to move forward on this particular issue."

But he defended the principle behind the Azamiyah barrier, saying it was aimed at protecting the community, not segregating it.

The comments came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he had ordered a halt to construction of the barrier in Azamiyah, as the project drew strong criticism from Sunni leaders and residents complaining it was a form of discrimination that would isolate the community.

In his first public comments on the issue, al-Maliki said Sunday that he had ordered the building to stop.

"I oppose the building of the wall and its construction will stop," al-Maliki said in his first public comments on the issue. "There are other methods to protect neighborhoods, but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect."

"This wall reminds us of other walls that we reject, so I've ordered it to stop and to find other means of protection for the neighborhoods," he added during a televised live news conference during a state visit to Cairo, Egypt.

Al-Maliki is seeking to drum up support for his Shiite-led government among mostly Sunni Arab nations and his comments may have been aimed at appeasing them.

Al-Moussawi said the prime minister was referring to what he called exaggerated media reports about the wall's construction but was not against the security barrier in principle.

"We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Azamiyah neighborhood. This is a technical issue," he said. "Setting up barriers is one thing and building barriers is another. These are moveable barriers than can be removed."

But hundreds of demonstrators in Azamiyah shouted slogans and carried posters saying the concrete barrier would make them prisoners of their own neighborhoods and an easier target for terrorists.

Protesters carried banners with slogans such as the "separation wall is a big prison for Azamiyah citizens" and "Azamiyah children want to see Baghdad without walls." No violence was reported.

Dawood al-Azami, deputy director of the Azamiyah city council, said a questionnaire that was handed out in the area on Sunday indicated that 90 percent of the respondents strongly oppose the barrier.

Violence was unrelenting in Iraq, with three suicide bombers in different parts of Iraq killing at least 22 people and wounded more than 50, police and politicians said.

A parked car bomb also exploded outside the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, killing one civilian, and a drive-by shooting wounded two guards at Tunisia's Embassy in the capital, police said.

Crocker, who replaced Zalmay Khalilzad as U.S. ambassador, urged Iraqi legislators to pass key legislation that it is hoped will help bring minority Sunnis into the political process, saying "these months ahead are going to be critical."

He said the security plan was important but its main purpose was to "buy time for what ultimately has to be a set of political understandings among Iraqis.

"Clearly the road is going to be a tough one," he said. "It's going to be very, very difficult, but I certainly believe success is possible otherwise I wouldn't be standing here."

Crocker said the intention of the barrier in Azamiyah as well as those constructed around markets in the capital is "to try and identify where the fault lines are and where avenues of attack lie and set up the barriers literally to prevent those attacks."

"It is in no one's intention or thinking that this is going to be a permanent state of affairs," he added.

Monday's first suicide car bomb attack occurred near the northern city of Mosul in front of an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Abdul-Ghani Ali, an official with the group said, adding that at least 10 people were killed and 20 wounded in the attack.

Ghanim Hazim, 37, a shop owner in Tal Uskuf, said dozens of people rushed past his store to the site of the blast to help the wounded, who "were screaming and asking for help as they lay buried under big pieces of debris."

He said residents of the predominantly Christian town were in deep shock because it was the first terrorist attack in their tight-knit community since the Iraq war started.

"This attack shows that no place in Iraq is free from the terrorists and their evil deeds," Hazim said.

A suicide car bomber also struck a police station in Baqouba, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, killing at least 10 people, including city police commander Brig. Gen. Safa al-Tamimi, and wounding 23, police said.

In central Baghdad, a bomber wearing an explosives belt blew himself up in an Iraqi restaurant in the mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood of Karradah Mariam, killing at least seven people and wounding 16, police said.

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