BAGHDAD – Even as the Iraqis are removing some of the concrete blast walls that divide Baghdad, authorities have quietly installed about 100 metal gates near a major Shiite shrine — a clear sign of ongoing security concerns as bombings continue.
Perforated gates have been put up in the past three weeks in the heavily policed Kazimiyah district along streets and alleyways leading to the shrine of Imam Mousa al-Kazim, a much revered eighth-century Shiite saint. Security cameras are also being installed at the gates of the double-domed complex.
The street gates were put up following back-to-back suicide bombings near the shrine on April 24, which killed 71 people. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq in more than a year.
Ironically, the new security measures were taken despite the dramatic reduction in violence across Iraq over the past two years.
They serve as a reminder that the Iraq conflict is not over and that extremists remain able to carry out morale-sapping, spectacular attacks against Shiite targets only weeks before U.S. combat troops are due to leave Baghdad and other cities to outlying garrisons.
A series of bombings in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk killed 66 people and wounded dozens on Wednesday and Thursday. One attack, in the north Baghdad Shiite district of Shula on Wednesday, killed at least 41. The attacks followed a spat of major bombings last month that left some 200 dead in Baghdad alone.
Residents of Kazimiyah, whose shrine attracts millions of Shiite pilgrims, are divided over the gates.
Some complain that they obstruct the flow of vehicles and pedestrians, creating long lines that offer militants a tempting target. Others praised them as an effective method to keep out potential bombers.
"The gates are not the solution," said resident Ali Habib, 31. "I am against the gates because they turned Kazimiyah into a prison. Does it have to be either explosions or gates? Cannot there be something in between?"
Brig. Gen. Dhafer Abed al-Mohammedawi, the Kazimiyah security chief, offers no apologies for the gates.
"Staging an attack in Kazimiyah is a big deal. It is the heart of Baghdad," he said. "You cannot bring a car bomb into Kazimiyah, but there were many soft points that the gates should take care of."
Kazimiyah, however, is an especially sensitive neighborhood. An attack that damages the shrine could re-ignite the kind of brutal violence that followed the bombing of another important Shiite mosque north of Baghdad in 2006.
The district also includes Shiite seminaries and is home to senior Shiite clerics. Tens of thousands of people flock to the area every day to shop at its busy gold and clothes markets. It also is renowned for its eateries and riverside cafes.
"The shrine itself is not the objective," al-Mohammedawi told The Associated Press. "The goal is to hit it so that the sectarian war resumes. Our goal is to protect the residents and visitors."
The brown, green and yellow gates vary in width from five to 15 yards and are guarded round the clock. Some are permanently shut. Others are opened to allow pedestrians or vehicles to pass after searches.
"It will be better if they replace the gates with advanced equipment to detect explosives and an efficient guard force," said Ghalib Jassim, an Oil Ministry employee and a longtime Kazimiyah resident.
Last month's bombing in Kazimiyah shows both the resilience of the extremists and a change in the pattern of attacks since the height of the violence in 2007.
Rather than frequent daily attacks, militants now appear to carry out spectacular bombings followed by periods of calm. The Wednesday bombing in Shula was the first major blast in the city since May 6, when 15 people were killed at a produce market in south Baghdad.
Al-Mohammedawi believes the explosives used in the April 24 Kazimiyah attack were smuggled into the area in small installments over a period of time.
He said reliable intelligence suggests that Shiite and Sunni militants are no longer capable of major attacks on their own and are pooling resources, setting aside their differences in the common interest of undermining the U.S.-backed government.
"It is a Satanic alliance. Its goal is to destabilize and hurt Iraq regardless of differences in ideology or creed," he said. U.S. military officials have suggested there was evidence of such cooperation, but offered no details.