WASHINGTON — Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, we’re building a wall. Actually, quite a few walls.

While we were absorbed with the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech — and before that the Don Imus affair and the Alberto Gonzales tragicomedy — the war in Iraq was pushed below the fold. While we weren’t looking, the U.S. military started building high walls in parts of the Iraqi capital to separate Sunnis from Shiites.

Basically, we’re turning Baghdad into Belfast.

This is supposed to be a temporary expedient, a way to tamp down Iraq’s sectarian civil war — in the capital, at least, which is the ostensible goal of George W. Bush’s fraudulent “surge” policy — by making it harder for the antagonists to get at each other’s throats. The so-called “peace lines” in Belfast, separating Protestants from Catholics, were supposed to be temporary, too. That network of walls was begun in the 1970s.

The construction of barriers and checkpoints that turn Baghdad neighborhoods into what U.S. officers sardonically call “gated communities” is another sign — as if more evidence were needed — that Bush’s “surge” is nothing more than a maneuver intended to buy time. His open-ended commitment for U.S. forces to patrol those barriers and guard those checkpoints will become the next president’s problem.

The walls that have been built so far didn’t prevent the car bombs in Baghdad last week, including at the Sadriya market, that killed nearly 200 people. Even the heavy fortifications surrounding the Green Zone, where the American presence and the Iraqi “unity” government are headquartered, couldn’t keep a suicide bomber from detonating his explosives in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament.

But let’s assume that if U.S. forces build enough walls and make it hard enough for Iraqis to move around their own capital, the violence in Baghdad may decline somewhat. In that event, the Shiite death squads and Sunni suicide bombers will simply do their killing elsewhere in Iraq. There’s considerable evidence that this already is happening.

Both the president and his many critics say that the real problem in Iraq is political — that there will be no genuine prospects for peace until Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-dominated government reach a negotiated accommodation with the Sunni insurgency. The barriers going up right now — The Washington Post reported that at least 10 Baghdad neighborhoods will be isolated behind walls — likely will make Sunni-Shiite reconciliation a more distant goal. If anything, walls will accelerate the sectarian cleansing that has been purifying formerly mixed neighborhoods.

Walls divide; they do not unite. Walls give concrete expression to hatreds and prejudices, establishing them as artifacts not of the mind but of the landscape. When I was the Post’s London correspondent in the early 1990s, I covered the Northern Ireland conflict. The first thing I went to see in Belfast was the notorious “peace line” between the Falls Road, a Catholic stronghold, and Shankill Road, a Protestant redoubt. Everything looked the same on both sides — the houses, the shops, the people — yet it was as if they were two different countries. Animosities had been passed down through generations. Even now, 15 years later, a civil exchange between two of the leading antagonists — Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams — is big news.

How many years will it take to get to that point in Baghdad?

Bush has enmeshed the United States in a civil conflict that will take years, probably decades, to resolve. The building of walls mocks the administration’s happy-talk rhetoric about how much political progress the Iraqis are making. If the Iraqi government really is the exercise in inclusive democracy that Bush claims, walls would be coming down. Putting up new walls only makes sense if the White House foresees a substantial U.S. military presence in Iraq for many years to come.

Clearly, the Iraqi government is not ready to do the job of policing the enclaves that are being created. The government doesn’t even want to do the job. Maliki complained Sunday about a new wall in Adhamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood, saying it “reminds us of other walls that we reject.” Maybe he was thinking of Belfast, or maybe of Berlin, or maybe of the wall that the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians.

Or maybe he is beginning to realize how easy it is to build walls and how hard to tear them down.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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