10-foot-deep trench will protect Iraqi city of Karbala
By Hussam Ali and Mike Drummond
Thu, July 5, 2007
KARBALA, Iraq A now-dead plan to ring Baghdad with a trench to keep
out insurgents has found new life in Karbala, a predominately Shiite
Muslim city 50 miles south of the capital.
Iraqi construction crews this month will begin digging a 12-mile-long
trench to the west and south of the city of 1.4 million residents to
help prevent car bombs and protect two holy Shiite shrines.
U.S. and Iraqi officials shelved plans announced last year for a
bigger trench to surround Baghdad. Instead, they've focused on
conducting military operations in the provinces and raiding car-bomb
The Karbala trench will create a 10-foot-deep crescent, buttressing
approaches from the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Ramadi, about 70 miles
northwest of Karbala, to the main highway running south to Najaf.
Police towers will punctuate the trench, which will funnel traffic to
checkpoints outside the city center.
Local officials think that the trench will offer another layer of
protection from insurgents, even though it won't surround the city.
"Farms on the other sides of the city will prevent terrorists" from
entering, said Abdul Aal al Yasiry, the president of the Karbala
Governorate Council. He added that the trench will allow the city to
concentrate guards in towers and checkpoints, rather than patrolling
miles of open desert.
Residents welcome any plan to make Karbala safer.
"If the trench will prevent car bombs, let them make a thousand
trenches," said Haider Abdul Razzaq, 39, who runs a hotel for
pilgrims. "But I'm afraid the trench wouldn't stop the terrorists from
their plans to kill civilians if they couldn't reach the shrines."
On March 6, two suicide bombers killed at least 90 Shiite pilgrims in
Hilla by exploding themselves in a crowd that was heading to a holy
Shiite shrine in Karbala. Scores of others have died in such attacks
The shrine is the burial ground of the Imam Hussein, grandson of the
prophet Muhammad, said to have died in a battle for control of Islam
in 680. The battle was one of the key historical events that led to
the violent Sunni-Shiite split, which has claimed thousands of Iraqi
lives over the past year.
Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr last week called off a
July 5 march to a twice-bombed shrine in Samarra, about 60 miles north
of Baghdad, because the government couldn't guarantee security along
the hostile, Sunni-held main roads leading to the site.
"The trench will do something to protect the city from the car bombs
that come from the neighboring cities like Ramadi," said Maitham
Hamid, 36, of Karbala. "But I'm wondering whether they can stop the
car bombs that are made inside the city."
Security in Karbala remains a concern for the U.S. military. In
January, English-speaking insurgents in American-looking military
uniforms rolled into a government compound and killed one U.S. soldier
in the initial attack and four others shortly after abducting them.
U.S. officials think that Iran helped plan the attack and Iraqi police
were in on it.
The American military stepped up raids of car-bomb shops outside
Baghdad in June as part of a larger series of operations to stem
attacks on civilians.
Last September, Iraqi and U.S. officials including President Bush
touted a plan to seal off Baghdad with a 65-mile-long trench. That
plan evidently died, and Iraqi officials now deny that it was ever in
There was never "any intention to build a trench around Baghdad," Abd
al Kareem, a spokesman for the Iraq Ministry of Information, told
McClatchy Newspapers. He noted that the capital has 28 roads leading
into it, "and we guard these entrances without the need to build a
The trench in Karbala won't be the first time such a scheme has been
tried here. Last year, the North Carolina Army National Guard 505th
Engineer Battalion built an 8-mile-long, 8-foot-tall berm around the
village of Sinayah near Bayji, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.
Insurgents were using the village as cover to lob rockets and mortar
rounds at nearby U.S. military Camp Summerall. By encircling the
village, troops could control vehicular traffic.
And after the U.S. Marines invaded Fallujah in 2004, that small city
40 miles west of Baghdad was surrounded by an extensive network of
berms, particularly on minor roads.
Several smaller communities have been bermed, and neighborhoods in
Baghdad have been blockaded to force residents through single checkpoints.
(Ali is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent; Drummond reports
for The Charlotte Observer. Special correspondent Jenan Hussein
contributed to this article.)
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