x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Iraqi Shiites suffer from violent sectarianism

The second of a five-part series Mixed neighbourhoods in which Shiites once lived are now a thing of the past.

The children of a man whose 11 brothers were killed by al Qa'eda.  He now cares for 70 orphans in Diala.
The children of a man whose 11 brothers were killed by al Qa'eda. He now cares for 70 orphans in Diala.

The mixed neighbourhoods in which Shiites once lived are a thing of the past and the population suffers from the violent sectarianism that shades the lives of all Iraqis today. Nir Rosen, foreign correspondent, reports in the second of a five-part series.

BAGHDAD // There is always one queue you should avoid, Sarmad Talib's brothers always warned him - the one, they said, made up of young men seeking a job in the Iraqi security forces. Too many times since the start of the US occupation in 2003, suicide bombers posing as eager job-seekers have targeted these queues.

On an early morning last month, though, that advice was overshadowed by other worries. Although Sarmad Talib was only 18, he already had a five-month-old son. And although he had a job guarding government buildings, the army was offering better pay. So to get a good spot in the queue, he slipped out of his house in Baghdad's Sadr City at 4am, admonishing his wife as he left not to tell his brothers of his destination.

At least 59 recruits were killed when a suicide bomber set off an explosion next to the queue at about 7.30am. Talib was wounded and gave his phone to someone in the hospital to call his brothers. When they arrived, they searched for him among the wounded, but they found his body in the morgue. Talib's death was a tragedy, but hardly the first for his family, whose fortunes have followed the ebb and flow of other members of Iraq's majority Shiite community since the US-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein.

The Talib family and other Shiites were marginalised and impoverished under Saddam's regime. Saddam lavished his largesse only on those most loyal to him and, after their uprising of 1991, most Shiites were suspect. Led by the populist, anti-occupation cleric Moqtada al Sadr, Shiites emerged from Saddam's ouster in 2003 as Iraq's most potent political force - only to become embroiled in inter-communal warfare that threatened by 2007 to tear the country apart.

Now, the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighbourhoods in which they once lived are a thing of the past, and they suffer from the sectarianism that shades the lives of all Iraqis. Until late 2004, the Talib family lived in the west Baghdad Sunni stronghold of Ghazaliya. But they were warned by Sunni militias to leave or die, and they moved to the predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Sadr City. Now they live in a Sadr City squatter settlement known as Sadrein, vulnerable at any moment to be uprooted by government authorities or the security forces. Their lives are a constant battle for survival.

What little electricity the family gets comes from private generators. Army troops extort cash from the drivers of the tanker lorries that deliver water. Mounds of trash cover the streets, and children sift through the filth. According to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, there are about half a million internally displaced Iraqis living in similar squatter settlements. His face gaunt and eyes tired from grieving his brother's death, Issam Talib said his family had grown tired of where they live and weary of their poor quality of life. But they have no choice.

"If we go back to Ghazaliya, we'll be killed at night," Mr Talib said. "There are a lot more attacks than people know about." Besides the economic hardship and security problems, there is, of course, a political vacuum. Although there were elections in March, Iraq's fractious political parties have been unable to cobble together a government. Against this background, the organised sectors of the Shiite community - in particular, the supporters of Mr al Sadr - still represent a potent and potentially destabilising political and military force.

The Sadrists have experienced an identity crisis. Once a symbol of defiance and resistance to oppression, they have seen Shiites take control of the Iraqi government and prevail in fighting over Sunni insurgents. It is hard to be anti-establishment when you are part of the establishment. But as a force to press demands for a fairer share in an Iraqi system that Shiites now largely control, Mr al Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, which was crushed and scattered by US forces in 2008, could be reconstituted quickly.

"We are still active," confided one Mahdi Army official, claiming that the militia has "vast" caches of hidden weapons. As the violence in Iraq appears to be increasing and the majority see a further decline in basic services, no other movement expresses the anger that millions of Shiites feel more than the Sadrists. Indeed, many veterans of its military wing yearn for the days when their power prevailed in the streets.

The ability of Mr al Sadr's supporters to galvanise forces was on display on the first Friday of Ramadan, as tens of thousands of his followers walked past Iraqi army checkpoints and, indifferent to the molten August heat, gathered for prayers led by Seyid Muhanad al Musawi. Mr al Musawi complained bitterly about the violence and the lack of services. He also condemned the corruption of Iraq's political establishment. He urged the throng to chant with him: "No to the wrong! No to America! No to Israel! No to imperialism! Get out, occupier!"

Sheikh Ahmad al Kinani, the director of the Sadrists' headquarters in the Shiite stronghold of Shuula, in west Baghdad, echoed Mr al Musawi's grievances. "Electricity is worse than ever. Children and elderly are dying from the heat. Human rights is a concept that doesn't exist in Iraq," Mr al Kinani said. Just as importantly politically, perhaps, was the influential sheikh's invocation of a tried-and-true Sadrist platform that could become a rallying cry in the future: opposition to foreign occupation.

Although the United States is touting the "end of combat operations in Iraq," nothing has changed, he said. "If there is one American soldier left in Iraq, Iraq is still occupied." For any struggle that lies ahead, Iraq's Shiites have a deep well of history and theology from which to tap, which was evident at the prayers for Sarmad Talib. Three days after he was killed while waiting in the job queue, scores of people gathered in a mourning tent deep in Sadr City, where a young Sadrist cleric recited from the Quran and Shiite history.

One of the nearby houses belonged to Abu Dara, a feared Mahdi Army commander known as "the Shiite Zarqawi" for his brutal revenge attacks against Sunnis. He was rumoured to have just returned to Iraq. Sarmad's brothers, Issam and Anwar, greeted friends and relatives, who sat down and recited the Fatiha, the Quran's first chapter. As the imam retold the battle of Taf, where Imam Hussein and his followers are slaughtered, Issam and Anwar began to sob and beat themselves. For them, Sarmad was a martyr like Imam Hussein, a victim of oppression and injustice.

"We live in Iraq," one of Sarmad's cousins said to a well-wisher. "We expect to hear bad news."

foreign.desk@thenatonal.ae