BAGHDAD Iraq has modified a U.S. military plan to protect a Sunni enclave in Baghdad with high concrete walls, and is using barbed wire and smaller cement barriers instead, an Iraqi military spokesman said on Wednesday.
The move to alter the controversial project follows an order from Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to halt construction of the 5-km (3-mile) wall around Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab area surrounded on three sides by Shi'ite communities.
Residents have complained bitterly that the walls, up to 12 feet (3.5 metres) tall, would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions.
On Wednesday, anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr slammed the U.S. plan as a "sectarian" and "racist" project.
"We have sought other substitutes such as barbed wire, sand walls and small concrete barriers," said Brigadier-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for a U.S.-backed security crackdown in Baghdad.
"We immediately started implementing the order of the prime minister three days ago."
U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said on Monday that the erection of barriers around Baghdad's markets and neighbourhoods was approved by Iraq's government and that it was up to the Iraqis to make modifications.
But neither Fox nor U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker at a separate news conference on Monday would say if work would stop.
Both the U.S. military and the Iraqi authorities appear to have been caught off guard by the hostility the project sparked among residents in Adhamiya.
It is not the first time Maliki has flexed his muscles with the United States. He ordered the lifting of U.S. military checkpoints in Sadr's Baghdad stronghold last year.
The U.S. military has said it is erecting tall concrete walls to protect at least five Baghdad neighbourhoods in what are being called "gated communities".
It has said the aim was to protect some residential areas from gunmen and control access and not an attempt to divide Baghdad along sectarian lines or seal off neighbourhoods.
In his first public comment on the Adhamiya wall, Sadr said in a statement: "If this wall shows anything, it proves the cunningness of the occupier."
"We the sons of the Iraqi people will defend Adhamiya and all other areas they want to isolate. We will ... protest with you, to defend our holy land."
The statement indicated the young cleric is increasingly trying to portray himself as a nationalist figure in Iraq.
Sunnis have long accused his Mehdi Army militia of sectarian death squad killings. Sadr denies sanctioning violence.
"Did we not see and hear the voices of those dear to us in Adhamiya as they shouted 'no, no to sectarianism', rejecting the sectarian, racist and oppressive wall that would isolate them from us?" Sadr said.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf)