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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Iraqis are living among a hidden arsenal that could explode

Eighteen people died recently because of the detonation of a munitions cache in Sadr City

People gather at the site of an explosion in Baghdad's Sadr City district. Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters 
People gather at the site of an explosion in Baghdad's Sadr City district. Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters 

Abu Kumail was standing on a pavement when the blast wave hit his body. The twin boom of a massive explosion was a dire vocal accompaniment. Shocked, but ultimately lucky, Abu Kumail walked away unscathed. A few streets away from his home in Sadr City, 18 people had been killed.

As a northern part of Baghdad used to violence and more than a decade of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, the June 6 blast was not particularly shocking – to begin with. But this was not a normal incident. The deaths were caused by the accidental detonation of a munitions cache, clandestinely placed in the floors beneath a mosque.

In only a few seconds, a block of family homes had been destroyed, two schools wrecked and other property burned beyond recognition. Beyond the death toll, more than 100 civilians were wounded.

Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi ordered an investigation and 20 arrest warrants were issued by the country's top court.

Two days later, Moqtada Al Sadr, whose coalition won the highest number of seats in elections weeks earlier, called for a nationwide disarmament campaign, saying his eponymous Baghdad stronghold would be the first to do so. "The blood of Iraqis is more precious than anything else," he said.

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Read more by Sofia Barbarani from Iraq:

In post-ISIS Iraq, tribal justice grows in shadow of Baghdad mistrust

Once prized across the Middle East, Iraq's dates industry clings to hope of better days

Charred and understaffed, Ramadi hospital still bears the scars of ISIS

Radio ‘hams’: The legacy of Iraq’s amateur operators lives on

Sadr City seethes over Iraqi politicians' neglect

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Yet nothing has changed. More worryingly, it could happen again. The area is littered with hidden arms, representing a threat to human life.

"There are 10 such caches all over Sadr City," said Abu Kumail, a leader in Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Units, an umbrella of largely Iran-backed Shiite militia groups.

Mosques are a favoured location, an ongoing legacy of the US invasion of Iraq and the tactics used by militias to avoid American troops discovering illicit weapons and ammunition.

Like some of Mr Al Sadr’s political opponents, Abu Kumail says the caches belong to Saraya Al Salam (Peace Companies) – Mr Al Sadr’s own militia.

During the US occupation after 2003, troops frequently uncovered arms stashed in Sadr City. Most belonged to Saraya Al Salam’s predecessors, the Mahdi Army.

Ninety per cent of the area, explained Abu Kumail, is loyal to Mr Al Sadr's fighters.

"This is a stronghold and a safe haven for them. They are divided into regiments and platoons according to their geography,” he added.

"Every platoon has its own weapons and ammunition caches in their neighbourhood."

Remnants of the mosque that was blown up in the June 6 explosion in Sadr City. Residents say there is still explosives under the rubble. Sofia Barbarani / The National 
Remnants of the mosque that was blown up in the June 6 explosion in Sadr City. Residents say there is still explosives under the rubble. Sofia Barbarani / The National 

The cache that exploded last month was located directly below the mosque kitchen. That evening, members of the community had been cooking for a wake when the heat from the oven caused one of the shells to go off, triggering the detonation of roadside bombs packed with C4 plastic explosives captured from ISIS.

Unsafe storage is common, adding to the risk of further accidental blasts. Even some of those involved "lack experience in how to handle those weapons and munitions", Abu Kumail says.

The blast tore right through the second floor of Hussein Abbas's home.

The 46-year-old estimates it will cost him tens of thousands of dollars to tear down and rebuild the damaged building.

But so far, he says, he has not received compensation from the government. Under the Iraqi law on Compensation for Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions, victims of damaged property should receive three types of reparations: a one-time grant, a monthly pension and a plot of residential land.

Hussein Abbas, 46, stands in front of his home. The second floor of the building was damaged in the explosion. Sofia Barbarani / The National 
Hussein Abbas, 46, stands in front of his home. The second floor of the building was damaged in the explosion. Sofia Barbarani / The National 

According to officials, this can be a lengthy procedure.

"We didn’t have time to run out," Mr Abbas recalls, standing in front of his home.

"My mother was in intensive care and my wife hurt her legs and back."

Jaffar Taleb, 27, woke up in hospital to find out that his 14-year-old sister, Fatimah, had been killed in the explosion.

"The entire house collapsed on us," he says.

"No one has come to see us or tell us anything. Only police and journalists came – not even the clerics have come."

Down the road, a big colourful tent houses five brothers and their respective families. All of them lost their homes.

"We're angry, of course, we had 15 people injured," says one of the brothers. "We’d been living in that house since 1997."

The family is worried that there could still be explosive material buried beneath the rubble.

"No one has removed the ordnance, we found a jar of C4 in the next street," says Tahab Sharrif, a cousin of the five brothers.

"The militia in Samarra, when they come back they store it here," he says, alluding to Mr Al Sadr's fighters.

Beyond the damage and the struggle of daily life, there is a stark sense of neglect among the victims of last month's blast. Most feel they have been abandoned by the country's leadship, who could be months away from forming a government, such is the disjointed and sectarian nature of Iraqi politics.

In a neighbourhood that is visibly lacking basic services such as water and electricity, the feeling of isolation is exacerbated by frustration.

Back in the cooler surroundings of his living room Abu Kumail is critical of the widespread use of weapons in Iraq.

Unlike before the US invasion it seems everyone now has a gun.

"Back then the weapons were only in the hands of the government," he says, recounting the days of Saddam Hussein's rule. "Now they're everywhere, it's a key problem, because the state is weak."

Sadr City. The National 
Sadr City. The National