BAGHDAD – This is the 24-square-kilometer theater where a great part of Iraq’s future is already being played out; a vital element in US President George W Bush’s surge; the place Pentagon generals dream of smashing into submission; one of the largest and arguably most notorious slums in the world: Sadr (formerly Saddam) City.
Sadr City is also, along with Gaza and the West Bank, the theater of the already evolving 21st-century war, pitting the high-tech Western haves against the slum-dwelling Third World have-nots. If the Bush administration had any intention of conquering any hearts and minds in Iraq, this is where it would be trying the hardest. Reality spells otherwise.
Sadr City is an immense grid in eastern Baghdad of ramshackle one-story buildings covered with dust – not unlike slums in North Africa or Pakistan. Main streets such as Boulevard Gouarder are lined with Iraqi, not partisan, flags. A few black flags denote houses of descendents of the Prophet Mohammed’s family.
There are photos of the late ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr – killed by Saddam Hussein’s goons – even in billboards advertising mobile phones. Muqtada al-Sadr’s office is a modest building near the main crossroads – not far from the street market that was hit by a horrific bombing in January that killed 250 people and wounded more than 400. There are plenty of sidewalk funeral tents – as is the custom in Iraq. Residents who fall victim to the carnage in Baghdad can be counted by the dozens on certain days.
Vans or pickup trucks carrying coffins pass by (in other parts of Baghdad, usually in the morning, pickup trucks carrying bodies or body parts pass by, severed legs and hands dangling). The radio station of choice is Peace 106 FM. Kids in Argentine soccer jerseys play in the streets alongside women in full chador (no chance of seeing any woman unveiled). Gasoline on the black market – promoted by kids by the curbside waving plastic containers – is extremely expensive: 80 US cents a liter. But there is no shortage of battered vehicles in the streets; the local buses look like rolling cadavers.
People have only one hour of electricity every six hours; sometimes nothing for two or three days. The majority cannot afford big generators (one ampere costs 9,000 dinars, almost US$8). So the answer is the cheap made-in-Korea Astra portable fuel generator, selling for $200 a piece. There is no phone service; virtually everybody carries a mobile phone.
Hussein al-Motery is the general administrator of the municipality of Sadr City, the man ultimately responsible for the well-being of almost 3 million people, more than half the population of Baghdad. Every day, after sunset prayers, rows of people come to his modest house to ask for favors or jobs (“I’m always in contact with the people”).
Unemployment in Iraq is usually estimated at a whopping 60%. Hussein has no figures, but in Sadr City it may be even higher (“Even people with university degrees have no jobs”). Hussein admits, “I was lucky, I graduated, I have the chance to own a house.” Eleven people per house – usually sleeping in the same room – is a fact of life all over Sadr City.
Sadr City is a giant dormitory. Hussein says, “Baghdad would become a ghost city if people from Sadr City would not go there to work.” He adds, “Sadr City has become the symbol of stability for Baghdad and Iraq. Many merchants in Baghdad come from Sadr City.” Community life is indeed stable; this is a peaceful, harmonious dormitory. Hussein describes local people as “naive, they accept everything, they have a great sense of sacrifice”. Residents confirm they feel secure inside Sadr City, but never outside. They are not in the habit of complaining; a common expression is Sali ala al-Nabi (“Pray for the Prophet”), meaning in the end everything will be all right.
Take Hussein Maheidel, from Amara in Shi’ite southern Iraq, who has been living in Sadr City for the past 30 years. He was a construction worker, but has been handicapped for the past 12 years because of a nerve problem in his back. All the best Iraqi doctors have left the country, so an operation might not be successful.
He has no pension to support his family of nine children. So he’s being helped by the office of Muqtada, who pays his monthly rent of $100, a figure considered low in Sadr City. The average monthly rental for a house in the neighborhood is $750.
The Maheidel family lives in bleak poverty and sleeps in the same small room. But the head of the household is not complaining. He hopes his children “will not be workers, like myself”. They are all in school; the unfortunate exception is his six-year-old daughter, who spends the day caring for her father (he walks on crutches). The expression of infinite sadness in her eyes is extremely disturbing. There are polite smiles in Sadr City – but the impression is they are directed to the foreign visitor. Resignation in sadness seems to be the feeling among most adults.
Maheidel believes Muqtada “is a good leader”. He says, “The Americans came to our house at night, walking; they didn’t search the house, but they were ready to attack.” Security in his district is provided by tribal guards, and not by Muqtada’s Mehdi Army. Everyone in the district seems to agree Sadr City is the most peaceful place in Iraq. The heavy turbulence is another story – it involves deadly clashes between the Mehdi Army against the Americans, Sunni guerrillas or al-Qaeda in Iraq.
‘We lack everything’
Hussein tries somewhat to be lenient with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: “The problem is Parliament did not allot money for Sadr City according to our necessities.” Because of its reputation as a safe neighborhood, Hussein says a lot of people from other parts of Iraq are moving into Sadr City.
Each district has two schools. Sheikh Ali Hasan, elegant in his brown robe, responsible for one of Sadr City’s districts, says there are more than 100 schools in the neighborhood, but as Hussein points out, “The number of students exceeds the places we have available.”
There are plans to build a university. The municipality already has the land, 300 hectares; they also want to build a medical center and a park. But they need help. And no help is coming from the Maliki government.
According to Hussein and Hasan, there are also not enough health services in Sadr City. Caring for almost 3 million people, there are only two general hospitals (one of them for children), one women’s hospital and a few clinics. “Our doctors have united and have taken some initiatives. But we lack everything. Especially with this government, they are not stable.”
Hussein remembers, “After the fall of Saddam, there were a lot of good expectations. But the Americans came here with no architects or machines. They think they have the right to do anything they want.” He refers to the recent million-people march from Kufa to Najaf called by Muqtada: “If the Americans had any sensibility, they would have left Iraq.”
Hussein and Hasan confirm that the Americans usually “come at night, sometimes by day, always protected by helicopters”. They “sometimes bomb houses, sometimes arrest people, sometimes throw missiles”. Three months ago “they surrounded Sadr City. They keep doing it sometimes, for a few hours.” Hussein is adamant: “This is not a dangerous place. You can walk around anywhere. Even Sunnis live here. Our director of finance, he lives in Adhamiyah, he comes to work here. Many women officials too. The other way around, it would not be possible.”
It has been a long time since Muqtada himself has been to Sadr City. Every resident says something to the effect that “he is in our hearts”. Hussein stresses, “I am an Iraqi first, but also a Sadrist. Muqtada is always with us. We even listen to his whispers. He is the only musician in our country; the orchestra is playing other things. He is the only leader who has called for the unity of Iraq.”
Muqtada’s recent speech, in which he accused Bush of building “non-national and non-Islamic walls of political and sectarian division”, has struck an extremely powerful chord in Sadr City. Were the Pentagon tempted to wall Sadr City, the feeling is that nearly 3 million people would instantly be up in arms. There have been rumors that Muqtada has directed the Mehdi Army to attack any trucks in Baghdad transporting concrete blocks. But no one in Sadr City confirms it.
Victory by genocide
Even urban, highly educated, secular Shi’ites – and a few secular Sunnis as well – agree that the Mehdi Army at least balances the excesses and the sometimes gruesome methods of the Sunni Arab resistance.
Hussein sees the Mehdi Army as a question of sovereignty and emphasizes its social role as “spontaneously helping people and trying to solve their practical problems”.
Naturally, Sadr City residents, in their natural habitat, do everything they can to play down the other dark – and very real – side of the Mehdi Army: the sectarian killings, the “armed and dangerous mob on a rampage” element. On the other hand, Sadr City will continue to live in constant fear of being attacked by more horrendous car and truck bombings. And there’s of course Amrika.
The Pentagon is now spinning murky stories of “secret cells” in Sadr City loaded with EFPs (explosively formed penetrators), bombs made in Iran used in most attacks by the Mehdi Army against the US in Sadr City. Residents angrily deny it: they say the Americans are attacking the neighborhood, not the other way around, and they have nothing to do “with the Iranians”. The Mehdi Army may have access to these bombs on the black market, but this does not mean they are being armed by Tehran.
The key problem is Shi’ite-Shi’ite violence. The Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and effectively trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, is now clashing with the Mehdi Army in Sadr City itself. This boils down to a rivalry between eminent families fighting for political hegemony – al-Sadr and al-Hakim (Abdul Aziz al-Hakim heads the SCIRI). The fighting could expand – with horrific consequences. Muqtada has already issued orders for the Mehdi Army to cool down.
As for Amrika, there’s no way the US will conquer any hearts and minds among more than half the population of Baghdad. And should the Pentagon go for the much-feared “battle of Sadr City”, there will be only one way to yell “mission accomplished”: by perpetrating a mass genocide.