Small Wars Journal

The Urban Tourniquet -- "Gated Communities" in Baghdad

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 8:04pm
Gated communities in counterinsurgency are like tourniquets in surgery. They can stem a life-threatening hemorrhage, but they must be applied sparingly, released as often and as soon as possible, and they have side-effects that have to be taken into account. They are never a first choice. But, given the dire current situation in Baghdad, the "urban tourniquet" is the lesser of several evils, because it breaks the cycle of sectarian violence that has caused so much damage and human suffering in Iraq.

This cycle typically involves extremists infiltrating a Sunni neighborhood, intimidating the population, setting up a base (often in derelict houses), then using that base to launch attacks on the Shi'a community in surrounding districts. Shi'a militias then retaliate, striking out at the Sunni neighborhood, killing innocent people, provoking blood feuds and further retaliation. The pall of fear, and the external threat, cements the extremists' hold over the local population. It allows them to pose as defenders of the people -- albeit defending against a threat they themselves cynically created to manipulate the people.

If we cannot break this cycle, then we cannot reverse the deteriorating security situation, and whatever else we do at the political or strategic level, the war on the streets will be lost. Thus, this cycle represents a life-threatening hemorrhage that has to be staunched, even at the cost of short-term political pain.

The "gated community" stops the cycle of sectarian violence in three ways.

First, it makes it much harder for terrorists to infiltrate a community. We only establish perimeter security (checkpoints, T-walls, etc.) once the area has been cleared and secured, close relations are established with the population, and we have troops on the ground securing the district in conjunction with the people. Once the gated community goes in, this makes it much harder for extremists to re-enter.

Second, the perimeter controls make it much harder for terrorists to launch attacks from within that district, because they have to smuggle a car bomb or suicide vest out, through a limited number of controlled access points. This reduces extremists' ability to use gated districts as a base to attack neighboring areas.

Third, if the terrorists do manage to mount an attack, the security controls protect the gated community against retaliation by "death squads". This reduces fear within the community, alienates extremists from the population (since they can no longer pose as defenders) and emboldens people, who would otherwise be too intimidated, to tip off the security forces to enemy presence.

Adhimiya is a case in point. This is the last remaining majority-Sunni district East of the Tigris. It has suffered a hemorrhage of refugees and a huge amount of social and humanitarian damage in the past 12 months. AQI had established a safe haven there, creating bomb factories and raiding bases from which to attack neighboring Shi'a areas in New Baghdad and Sadr City. Many of the most serious spectacular attacks on the Shi'a population originated from Adhimiya, and some extremely bloody revenge attacks were mounted in retaliation. Hundreds have been killed by car bombs emanating from Adhimiya, and hundreds of innocent Adhimiya residents have been killed in retaliation. A gated community in this district could thus save thousands of lives over the next few months.

We had to stop this hemorrhage, not only to protect the population of East Baghdad but to prevent the "cleansing" of Adhimiya and the murder or eviction of the innocent population. The gated community approach was therefore decided on -- in conjunction with the community and the Iraqi security forces -- as an emergency measure to break the cycle. The recent protest against the project originated as a coordinated AQI information operation (more on this in a moment).

Two other gated communities have already been established (in Ameriya and Ghazaliya districts) with no public protest, indeed with great support from the population. I was out on the ground in Ghazaliya a few weeks ago, and several locals thanked me for the security the gated community had brought to their district. Other patrols and interactions with the population tell the same story. And people from Shi'a districts that have been "gated" or provided with protective barriers have expressed the same appreciation to me in meetings over the past week.

Why the protest, then, in the case of Adhimiya? Principally because, if the gated community succeeds, AQI's ability to strike at Shi'a communities, and thus its ability to provoke sectarian violence, will be dramatically curtailed as it loses its base in East Baghdad. Hence AQI appears to have initiated the local protests, organized using cellphone text messages and mass-produced paper flyers in the district. This is classic AQI info ops -- stirring up the population through a combination of manipulation, intimidation and fear of other groups. The level of coordination and media manipulation applied in this case is also a hallmark of AQI info ops.

Incidentally, this was probably also the motivation behind the attack on the Sarafiya bridge (Iron Bridge) two weeks ago, around the time the gated community project started. This bridge is the only access from West Baghdad into Adhimiya, and thus bombing it may have been an attempt by AQI to remain un-molested in their base of operations.

The claims raised by the protesters were all false or exaggerated. The security controls are not permanent, and can be readily removed when the situation improves. They do not create a ghetto, since security forces will live inside the area alongside the population, and access (though controlled through authorized points) remains free-flowing. Thus this project does not represent oppression of the population, but rather protects them from insurgent intimidation.

Of course, there is a political downside, one that we are well aware of. But, on balance, given the extremely serious current situation, we believe this approach is valid -- as a temporary, emergency measure. Just like a tourniquet, this is a necessary technique but it has side-effects that have to be taken into account, and it can only be temporary. The gated community helps break the cycle of sectarian violence. Once it is stopped, other things become possible. And short-term political and media opposition, whipped up by coordinated AQI information ops, may be the price we have to pay in order to "stabilize the patient".

David Kilcullen is Senior Counter-Insurgency Advisor, Multi-National Force -- Iraq. These are his personal opinions, have not been vetted or screened, and do not represent the views of any government or organization.


Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 9:38pm

sorry for the slow response -- I've been on a plane and just spent the last day away from e-mail.

Mountainrunner, I take your point fully. I am not going to b/s you, mistakes have been made and continue to be made. I can't go into detail, but I'm hoping that some of what we are doing since we arrived will make a difference in that regard. It's also worth noting here that the Iraqi government was heavily involved in planning this op, and part of this process is about them learning to counter AQ IO also.

Troufion, your point is well made too. Actually, what the gated communities resemble are not so much strat hamlets, but rather the "seam zone" concept from Northern Ireland, which was used in the mid 1990s to control access across sectarian divides in Belfast, and proved both highly effective and very popular with the local population. If you want a good discussion of them, Bruce Hoffman, the great COIN/CT expert, has recently published a book that talks about them in detail. Most Brit officers would be familiar with the approach too. The IRA mounted a similar campaign against the concept, but ultimately people's improved security led to popular support that spoke for itself. Most IDPs tell us that once they are confident security has improved, they will be ready to return. But we shouldn't kid ourselves -- this might not happen, and it could take a very long time even if it does.

Brit, on the Dora CBF, I'll have to check. I have previously heard or seen CBF fairly frequently, I don't think there was much out of the ordinary about the last 24 hours, but I can't give you an answer right now without making something up -- and I try not to do that, for obvious reasons!!! I agree that arty has been one of the areas in which US and UK practice differs most in Iraq, though in Afghanistan right now US forces are if anything somewhat less ready to apply air and arty fire than NATO forces. I think you are overly harsh on Gen Odierno, though. The media image of him does not do justice to the reality. This is a guy who has learned a huge amount in the past three years, really understands the security environment, and is really making a difference to people's welfare in Baghdad. Your point on the US perception is valid and well taken.

for what it's worth....thanks for the comments, it keeps us honest and I do appreciate the feedback!


Brit (not verified)

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 7:30pm

Even if these gates can be justified, the news of an artillery barrage on Dora this morning, audible in downtown Baghdad, is alarming. I know this isn't the first time artillery has been fired, but it's the first time I've seen it reported in US papers. Surely this is not part of the new COIN doctrine. It sounds a lot like Gen Odierno doctrine. No matter how good your observation - and I'm pretty sure US forces in Iraq have often fired using counterbattery radars alone at suspected mortar sites - loud artillery barrages cannot send a message of security, govt control and normality to the citizens of Baghdad. They also shorten the time remaining on Gen Petraeus' famous US clock. Americans who hear about this will see it as a sign of desperation and deterioration. It will increase their desire to leave. Just my opinion as a Brit - and I'm sure you know, Col Kilcullen, that British officers far more knowledgeable than I have often, in private, condemned some of the ways in which American forces have used artillery in Iraq.

TROUFION (not verified)

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 12:38pm


If this gated community effort works and it sounds very promising, have you given any thought to building strategic hamlets for the Iraqi IDP and Refugee populations? It seems to me a great way to get them back in, to build rapor with them and to get them off the borders. No need to run the issue of forcible relocation since they probably would prefer a secure community with access to clean water, shelter, food and employment to the ramshackle tent cities on the Saudi, Jordanian, and Syrian borders. These folks could prove a source of strength.


I agree with Dave D., a great post. Thank you for your explanation on the wall, an item I took issue with elsewhere.

While I agree with you on the tactical benefits, I stand by the two issues I took with the plan. There is a shortfall in communications with friends, allies, and foes to pre-empt and co-opt images and perceptions. The "short-term media opposition", and civil opposition in the US and elsewhere, should be anticipated with each and every action. I do not see an Information Plan at work here, proactively informing and taking ownership of issues in the cultural language of the locals.

Additionally, I'm curious if there are non-military assets moving into the secure zones to help stabilize and create desirable communities the citizens find worth defending when the walls come down? If so, open the kimono and share with the Iraqis, preferably through the Iraqis.

There is a credibility gap in this war of politics. Anything that can be misconstrued needs to be spotlighted for transperancy wherever possible. Those that can't be twisted by the enemy, should still be spotlighted to reinforce our "new" image of a recommited US projects.

In short, I'm curious where is the full court press in the realm of IO is to counter and pre-empt AQI et al IO? Because at its foundation, this was a problem of managing perceptions.


Another great post. Thanks much for keeping us in the loop concerning the real story behind 'the story'.


Best and Semper Fi to your son.

Dave D.


Your comments are spot-on. I have covered the predecessor of this in "Security and WHAM: Getting the Order Right":…

This was well before Stars and Stripes ever picked up on the story. However, I do understand that we should be loath to implement it unless necessary. It may be likened - if you will pardon the analogy - to driving late at night, an 18-wheeler behind you on your tail, a swerving 18-wheeler beside you, and you must leave the vicinity of the other vehicles because they are a hazard. Exceeding the posted speed limit is not a normally recommended exigency, but in the situation, it is a tool at your disposal, and when there is no other alternative, it must be implemented. There are risks, but the risks are informed by the benefits.

I am also willing to bet that you have a "window of opportunity" within which to operate, with the insurgents and terrorists finding a so-called "work-around" to these walls. Although your post was not intended to be so broad as to encompass this issue, the wall will not work forever, any more than 'my' sand berms in Haditha will. They are a temporary and effective measure to interdict the flow of the insurgency through the domain in which they operate.

May God grant us the wisdom to implement the correct corollary TTPs to ensure the success of the walls. My son currently fights in Iraq (in Fallujah), and time and order are of the essence.

Dave Kilcullen (not verified)

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 9:56pm

PM Maliki did initially order a halt to the construction, last Thursday. This was a perfectly appropriate response to the localized protests. However, he has now directed the project to continue.

I was not privy to the discussion, but as I understand it, once the reasons for the project and the likely benefits in terms of lives saved were explained to the PM, he was happy for it to continue. I understand that the evidence of extremist manipulation was also a factor.

I believe there are several media reports now out on this, in both Arabic and English-language media, so there's probably more up-to-date info available...


Dave K


Thanks for this post. Most of the news I've seen about this has been very very negative, but the main thing that sticks out are the headlines noting that the Iraqi PM "ordered a halt" to the wall. Is that still the case?

Best regards,