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Iraq Suspends Decision To Pull Down Blast Walls

Two Iraqi women walk past a damaged blast wall in Baghdad, July 13, 2009

Two Iraqi women walk past a damaged blast wall in Baghdad, July 13, 2009

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- After bomb attacks killed almost 100 people last week in Baghdad, officials have suspended a decision to remove many of the towering blast walls girding the Iraqi capital, a security official has said.

Tahseen al-Sheikhli, a civilian spokesman for security operations in Baghdad, said on August 25 a plan to remove all the concrete walls across Baghdad by the end of 2009, or even earlier, would no longer be implemented as planned.

Officials had said early this month most of the capital's blast walls would come down within 40 days.

Sheikhli said it would now be up to local military commanders whether to dismantle the walls, which have divided neighborhoods, encircled government buildings, and cut off roadways since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The reversal comes less than a week after coordinated attacks in Baghdad, including truck bombs near two ministries, killed 95 people and wounded more than 1,000 others, shaking the confidence of many Iraqis who have tentatively begun to accept the worst of the bloodshed of the last six years may be over.

The blasts also dealt a blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, seeking to portray himself as responsible for improving security ahead of a general election early next year.

Maliki said the attacks were a response to the announcement to bring down most of Baghdad's blast walls by mid-September.

"After Wednesday's events, the battle took a different direction. A review has been made of removing walls in many areas.... Leaders in the field will decide," Sheikhli said.

He said the walls will be lifted from some streets, left as is or expanded in other areas.

The removal of the walls, a symbol of the chaos and destruction that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis since 2003, would be a welcome step in returning Iraq to normality as U.S. troops prepare to halt combat operations next year and withdraw entirely by the end of 2011.

It also figures in Maliki's plans to capitalize on security gains as he seeks a second term as prime minister.

But last week's explosions brought outrage from Iraqis who blamed local soldiers and police for failing to stop bombers at checkpoints and even prompted some senior officials to point a finger at security forces for possible involvement.

Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a member of Iraq's Kurdish minority, said the attacks were partly due to a false sense of security that led to removal of blast walls and checkpoints.