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Despite insurgent attacks, Baghdad's mayor says: Tear down those walls!

| Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Baghdad's new mayor wants his old city back.

Alaa al-Tamimi, who took office in May, is leading a campaign to remove the security barriers that have sprung up all over the Iraqi capital to protect against the constant threat of insurgent attacks.

The ubiquitous concrete walls, trash-strewn barbed wire and steel barricades have created eyesores, sealed off popular riverside promenades, cut major roads and made huge swathes of the city off-limits to its 5 million residents.

"A lot of these barriers aren't necessary," al-Tamimi told The Associated Press. "People are exaggerating" the security threat.

In a city where guerrillas have repeatedly detonated car bombs and firefights occur in broad daylight downtown, most foreign security experts would argue otherwise.

Al-Tamimi acknowledges that insurgents are still active, but says security has improved since the June 28 handover of sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to an interim Iraqi government.

"We are living in abnormal circumstances, but I think this will change now because we are on the path to peace," he said. "I want to cross this path as fast as possible."

Two weeks ago, al-Tamimi took his own step in that direction. He tore down the concrete barriers outside his own city-center office tower, which stands safely removed from a busy street.

Of al-Tamimi's demands, the one least likely to be met -- and one that will test the limits of his authority -- is the opening of the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

The area covers about four square miles in central Baghdad and is a virtual fortress encircled and crisscrossed by miles of 12-foot-high barricades. Its gates are guarded by U.S. Bradley fighting vehicles, whose turrets aim at passing traffic.

One of Baghdad's main arteries now dead-ends straight into it: a four-lane street cut off by a triple layered sprawl of concertina wire, impassable concrete blast walls and sandbagged guard towers. Another key thoroughfare -- a light-green suspension bridge -- is inside the zone altogether.

Since it is off limits to the public, drivers are forced to steer around the area, which is home to Saddam Hussein's former palaces, monuments and the city zoo.

The result: traffic jams.

"The roads, they should be open 100 percent," al-Tamimi said.

"They should have their places; they should have their embassy, but this area should be shrunk," the mayor said of the American presence.

Coalition officials say privately that any move to open the Green Zone is unlikely to come soon.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert Callahan said U.S. authorities are aware of the mayor's concerns, but he noted that Baghdad remains a dangerous city.

"Until the security situation improves, and we are confident that it will over time, we must maintain certain measures to protect Iraqis and their international partners who remain in Baghdad," he said.

Another area al-Tamimi says he wants to see void of barricades is Abu Nawas street, which runs along the Tigris River.

Once busy with picnicking Iraqi families and thriving fish restaurants, the street's parks are now largely abandoned, interrupted by a labyrinth of blast walls set up to protect two 20-plus-story hotels that house foreign media and contractors.

Ali Rzuqi, a 26-year-old whose family-owned restaurant is on the riverside road, said he used to sell more than a 100 fish a day. With the road cut, he's lucky to sell three.

Rzuqi said there was another reason to take the walls down.

"They've made Baghdad ugly. Our city looks like Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to the notorious prison west of the capital.

"This is an important road for Iraq; it's a part of its history," al-Tamimi said. "We cannot convince people that peace exists now without some examples, of which Abu Nawas is one."

On Sunday, guerrillas detonated a roadside bomb on Abu Nawas, killing two civilians and wounding two others, police said.

Al-Tamimi said he would ask all ministries to remove barriers blocking traffic, and ask those that require them to consult his office. Foreign embassies that require them will have to pay the city a special tax, he said.

For the blast walls that remain, al-Tamimi has other plans.

"We'll ask some Iraqi artists and painters to draw some happy figures on these barriers, put some flower beds ... near them," he said.

Baghdad provincial Gov. Ali Radi al-Haidany said he also wants to restore the city's status as "a symbol for all Arab countries with a great civilization and history."

"This used to be one of the most important capitals in the Arab world, but Baghdad lost this brightness over the last few years," al-Haidany said. "We are determined to get it back."

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