After the July 21 Abu Ghraib and Taji prison breaks in Baghdad, Iraqi security forces effectively demonstrated the government’s ability to restrict movement in large parts of the sprawling city when they placed entire neighborhoods on lockdown. This ability, along with other excruciating security measures that rely not solely on armed force but on spatial control, is the primary reason behind Baghdadis' ostensible disinclination to social mobilization today. Indeed, the spatial impairment imposed on Baghdad is inseparable from Iraq’s ongoing political impasse. Severe spatial restrictions are to blame for the lack of adequate popular pressure to induce political reform.

Baghdad's blast walls. Photo by Amin Alsaden

Baghdad, Iraq's most populous and diverse city and home to the country’s key administrative and educational institutions, has remained calm despite contagious regional unrest over the last couple years. Even though protests did recently take place in Iraq’s western provinces and in spite of wide popular dissatisfaction with the performance of elected governments since 2003, Baghdadis have remained still. The government’s hostility toward dissent certainly means that Baghdadis are less likely to mobilize. But there are several other factors that can account for this stasis. Collective memories of Ba’athist rallies are one of them—mobilization became associated with coercion, spurious motives, and the futility of communal displays of political agendas. Sectarian violence is also to blame, as Iraqis have become wary of insurgents’ attacks targeting congregations. This is not to mention Iraqis’ exhaustion in seeing to mundane daily needs, which have kept the population physically and mentally consumed for decades. But the most significant factor has to do with space. Even if Iraqis wished to mobilize today, Baghdad's spatial configuration would debilitate any attempts at congregating, moving, or collectively expressing discontent. The very spatial configuration put in place in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, and sustained by Iraqi governments on the pretext that Iraq’s unusual security situation requires its continued presence, prevents mobilization or manifestations of popular pressure for change.

Two spatial conditions contribute to this outcome. The first lies in the fact that Baghdad is divided into various neighborhoods controlled by an extensive system of blast walls and checkpoints. The oppressive pervasiveness of this system can only be experienced by those negotiating its spatial stranglehold. Many Baghdad streets are still lined with the seemingly endless concrete barriers, which come in different shapes and are deployed in various formations. Since the majority of Baghdad buildings are one to two stories high, this means that one's view in several parts of the city consists solely of the ubiquitous grey walls, contributing to an overwhelming sense that one is constantly navigating an open-air prison. The barriers blend effortlessly with preexisting walls that were erected around sensitive government buildings in the Ba’athist era and with those surrounding extant Saddam Hussein palaces, becoming reminders of sinister continuities of the old Iraq. Yet, the city is in a constant state of gridlock not only because of how these walls hamper mobility, but also because of the numerous checkpoints strewn across Baghdad, in each major street or neighborhood. The resulting slow traffic is exacerbated by the painstaking procedure of inspecting vehicles individually, which is conducted by exposing cars to the controversial—and according to locals completely ineffective—hand-held explosive detectors. This comprehensive system—the efficacy of which is disputable given the sheer number of attacks taking place on a regular basis—makes Baghdad one of the most controllable cities in the world today. The system gives the Iraqi government an unprecedented local power, allowing it to place the entire city under curfew, or to encircle parts of it at will, as witnessed recently. In other words, the system in place is ineffective in providing security, but exceptionally effective in controlling Baghdadis and their movements. 

The second condition that inhibits social mobilization in Baghdad is the isolation of the infamous Green Zone. Initially created to protect the occupation forces, the Green Zone is a locus of public resentment. Iraqis level their criticism against the government and its top officials for living and working there safely, with all the services and amenities they need, remaining unaware of public demands or the daily ordeals of Baghdad’s population. The Green Zone is surrounded by several layers of protective concrete walls and barbed wire fences, overseen by a series of shielded watchtowers, and dotted with a generous number of security forces to ensure that no stretch of the Zone's border is left unattended. Access is controlled by a few points heavily staffed by security personnel who refuse entry to anyone without an official permit. These measures have made the Green Zone a safe haven in Baghdad, and a total enigma to ordinary Iraqis who have no way of entering it. These security measures therefore sever the spatial connection between Iraqis and their elected representatives and prevent access to public institutions—including the Parliament, the Council of Representatives, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, and the Office of the Prime Minister, among others. The separation of primary state organs from the general public also means that even if Iraqis managed to overcome other spatial impediments, they would not be able to access the buildings housing these organs or communicate grievances directly to their representatives.

This combination of a segmented city and an isolated government illustrates a unique example of a spatial regime that is not conducive to exercising the rights guaranteed by the Iraqi constitution—such as the freedoms of movement, congregation, peaceful protest, and ultimately expression of public demands or complaints—and a regime that also hinders the creation of a critical mass of protesters or activists that could potentially influence the government. While the new constitution describes Iraq as a parliamentary democracy, Baghdad's centrally controlled spatial hurdles are anything but democratic. Baghdad’s spatial configuration, upheld by the current government, detrimentally impacts public participation and therefore the prospects of political reform. Without a genuine public capacity to pressure the government, there is little incentive for positive change. Thus, the struggles over power, along with the poor performance of the government, are likely to continue unchecked.

Amin Alsaden is a doctoral student at Harvard University and a fellow at SWP Berlin (the German Institute for International and Security Affairs).