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US may drop plan for Baghdad barrier

9 US soldiers killed, 20 hurt in suicide blast

A female US Army soldier frisked Iraqi children for hidden mobile phones yesterday during a house-to-house search of a neighborhood in Mosul, where 10 people were killed by suicide car bombers. Across Iraq, bombings killed at least 48 people. (MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

BAGHDAD -- US officials signaled yesterday that they might reconsider putting a 3-mile-long concrete barrier around a Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad after Iraq's struggling prime minister came under pressure from Sunnis and ordered the project halted.

With the latest snag in US-Iraqi security cooperation, insurgents delivered a fresh example of the style of attacks that the military said the wall was designed to deter -- seven bombings that killed at least 48 people across Iraq.

Last night, the US military said nine US soldiers were killed and 20 were wounded in a suicide car bombing against a patrol base northeast of Baghdad.

The attack occurred in Diyala Province, a volatile area that has been the site of fierce fighting involving US and Iraqi troops battling Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

Plans for the separation barrier to protect Baghdad's Azamiyah neighborhood were in doubt after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized the idea of creating "gated communities" to separate the capital's sectarian neighborhoods.

Speaking during a tour of Sunni-led Arab countries, the Shiite Muslim prime minister said he did not want the 12-foot-high wall planned for Azamiyah to be seen as dividing the capital's sects.

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority dominated during Saddam Hussein's reign, and its members remain deeply distrustful of Shiite intentions and provide the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency.

Shiite militias, in turn, have been attacking Sunni neighborhoods in retaliation for attacks on their own communities.

Azamiyah's Sunni residents have been the target of frequent mortar attacks by Shiite militants, but hundreds of people in the district took to the streets to protest against the wall that they said would make their neighborhood "a big prison."

The new American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, defended the barrier plan yesterday, saying it was an effort to protect the Sunni community from surrounding Shiite areas, not to segregate it.

Holding his first news conference since taking his post, Crocker said security measures were implemented in coordination with the Iraqi government. "Obviously, we will respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister," he said, although he did not say construction would halt.

Maliki said he would not allow "a separation wall," but then said that the subject would be discussed and that he would not rule out all barriers, such as barbed wire.

Iraq's chief military spokesman indicated that some type of barrier would go up, saying Maliki was responding to exaggerated reports about the wall.

"We will continue to construct the security barriers in the Azamiyah neighborhood. This is a technical issue," Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi said at a joint news conference with a US military spokesman, Rear Admiral Mark Fox. "Setting up barriers is one thing and building barriers is another. These are moveable barriers that can be removed."

Moussawi noted that similar walls made of sections of concrete are in place elsewhere in Baghdad, including in other residential neighborhoods.

Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, a US military spokesman, said there may have been miscommunication.

"Discussions on a local level may not have been conveyed to the highest levels of the Iraqi government," Garver said. "Whether the prime minister saw this plan or not, I don't know. With him in Cairo, it complicates things."

Maliki's comments came as he faces heavy pressure to bring Sunnis into the political process and dampen support for the insurgency amid unrelenting violence despite the crackdown in the capital.

He had assured Washington that he would not allow political considerations to influence tactical decisions, but his criticism of the wall followed a wave of outrage from Azamiyah's residents and Sunni leaders after the US military announced its plan last week.

A US soldier was killed yesterday when a roadside bomb exploded near him in Muqdadiyah, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. A British soldier was shot to death while on patrol in the southern city of Basra, officials said.

In all, at least 70 people were killed or found dead in Iraq.

The deadliest attack occurred when a suicide car bomber struck near a restaurant outside Ramadi, killing at least 19 people and wounding 35 about an hour after a similar attack targeting Iraqi police in the volatile city wounded seven people.

Other suicide car bombers killed 10 people each in the northern city of Mosul and the city of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, police said.

In central Baghdad, a bomber wearing an explosives belt blew himself up in an Iraqi restaurant less than 100 yards from the heavily fortified Green Zone, killing at least seven people and wounding 16, police said. Also, bombs in two parked cars exploded outside the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, killing two civilians.