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A new idea for Baghdad security: anti-terrorist trees

French businessman Jean-Marie Zimmermann came to Baghdad with a modest proposal: to replace the city's vast network of concrete blast walls with terrorist-proof trees and bushes.

world Updated: Apr 24, 2009 11:11 IST

French businessman Jean-Marie Zimmermann came to Baghdad with a modest proposal: to replace the city's vast network of concrete blast walls with terrorist-proof trees and bushes.

"What we are suggesting combines safety and environmental conservation. We want to replace these walls that have disfigured the city with natural hedges that provide insurmountable security," he says.

Zimmermann is the export manager for Sinnoveg, a 420-hectare nursery in eastern France that specialises in "natural defensive weaved hedges" -- walls made from tightly bound thorny plants.

At the height of Iraq's sectarian fighting US and Iraqi forces erected a vast network of concrete walls, checkpoints and concertina wire that choked off dozens of Baghdad streets and isolated entire neighbourhoods.

As security has improved over the past two years, however, the government has started removing the barriers, and Baghdad's security spokesman said last week that all the capital's streets are to be reopened by the end of the year.

But the walls around government buildings and embassies -- most of which are concentrated in the so-called Green Zone in the heart of the city -- will remain. And that is where Zimmermann comes in. Why not, he suggests, make the Green Zone green?

"This is the kind of place where we can provide protection. We can remake Baghdad as a city focused on nature, ecology and the environment, with a new concept of security," he says.

The principle is simple: plant a row of thorny trees and bushes 80 centimetres (32 inches) apart and weave the branches together.

As the plants grow they form a dense and razor-sharp hedge that within three years can reach a height of six metres (20 feet). Zimmermann said traditional barbed wire, tyre spikes, sensors and even metal barriers can be placed within the hedges -- an invisible back-up layer of security sure to surprise any potential suicide bomber.

"A tank can go through but not a truck," he says. "The terrorist will think it is a row of plants but then he will be blocked."

Since introducing the concept five years ago Sinnoveg has built vegetation barriers around a nuclear research centre outside Paris, a juvenile detention centre, train stations and airports.

Zimmermann says his company has discussed future projects with civilian security providers in the United States and that a country in the Middle East which he declined to name is currently testing his product.

Natural barriers for homes and gardens have long been marketed by nurseries, but Zimmermann says Sinnoveg holds an international patent for its brand of weaved fences and is the first company to propose their use on this scale.

Earlier this month he was on hand for the opening of an international flower festival in Baghdad, a mostly symbolic affair meant to highlight the improving security situation in the capital. Showing off a model fence of thorny stems bent into a row of arches, Zimmermann extolled the advantages of his product.

"The last jail we did in France is surrounded only by this," he says, referring to the juvenile detention facility.

"No one tries to escape for two reasons. The first is that they are not surrounded by a wall so they feel better, and the second is that they know they cannot cross." Zimmermann later said that while in Baghdad he had meetings with representatives from the Baghdad municipality and from other Iraqi localities.

Hakim Abdel Zahra, the spokesman for the municipality, said the city was studying the concept of plant barriers "which was brought to us by a French investor." "The idea of establishing security barriers made of plants has many benefits, both from the psychological side and for the beauty and attractiveness of the city."

Zimmermann says Iraq's arid climate poses no problems, since he has plants that can survive temperatures as low as minus 28 degrees Celsius and higher than 42 degrees. "At that point they grow slower, but they can take it."

Zimmermann admits that attackers could try to cut their way through, but he says they would be caught before they made it too far.

"When you have five or six rows of thorny trees it will take at least an hour to cross, and that is more than enough time to capture the guy," he says. "Nothing is insurmountable, not even a concrete wall, but you slow down the infiltration. That's the principle."

Zimmermann dreams big, and as he expounds on the product he starts to look beyond Baghdad and its government buildings to Iraq's long and porous borders with its sometimes antagonistic neighbours.

"A vegetation barrier on certain parts of the border would be perfectly compatible with sensors," he says, and unlike the minefields that criss-cross the Middle East it would not leave future generations with missing limbs. And if infiltrators try to burn their way in? "It would take more than a blowtorch," he laughs. "These are living plants."