Unemployment high and public facilities lacking in stronghold of influential Shiite cleric
Sadr City seethes over Iraqi politicians' neglect
On a searing early summer morning in a northern suburb of Baghdad, dozens of tuk-tuks driven by young boys weave maniacally through heavy traffic, indifferent to the swerving vehicles around them. The roads are unpaved, littered with rubbish and lined by unlicensed corrugated-sheet shops and derelict homes.
This is Sadr City, a Shia-dominated sprawling slum on the edge of the Iraqi capital and stronghold of the cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.
Between March and April 2008, the suburb saw one Iraq's fiercest battles as Mr Al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia fought American and Iraqi troops. Automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the densely populated neighbourhood of about 3 million people, with 925 people killed and more than 2,000 wounded in March alone. The fighting ended with a ceasefire between Mr Al Sadr and the Iraqi military on May 12.
Ten years on, the face of Mr Al Sadr, flush with electoral success, is emblazoned across a giant billboard at the entrance to the slum. His personal prospects are on the rise — his coalition won the most seats in parliamentary elections last month. But inside his eponymous neighbourhood disillusionment with the political elite is at an all-time high.
Ali, a Sadr City resident who asked that his name not be used says little has changed over the past decade “from the oppression of Saddam Hussein, to the oppression of the Americans, to the oppression of the current government.
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“In Sadr [city] no one does their work. There is a high population density and a lack of services,” he says.
Water and electricity supplies are erratic, giving residents little respite from the summer heat. In the winter, rain causes the sewers to overflow. Waste collection is virtually non-existent and the two public hospitals are crowded and under-equipped.
At least security has improved, Ali says. In 2008 “there was terror, everyone was scared and worried". During the battle's darkest weeks, he would see people waiting anxiously outside one of the local morgues on his daily walk to work.
What most concerns Sadr City residents these days is the high level of unemployment, which some blame on a corrupt political elite. Gaggles of men stand on street corners, waiting to be hired for a day-job.
“Now there is less fighting but there’s poverty and unemployment. It has increased and it is causing trouble because many youths are unemployed,” says Ali. “Sadr City is a bomb waiting to explode.”
Inside one of the area's covered markets, fruit and vegetable stalls run by elderly women stand next to cages stuffed with live poultry. Nadbiyet, or religious Shia ballads, can be heard from one of the shops.
“Politicians are thieves and only God can help the poor people,” exclaims Umm Hadi, 60. In 2008 the market's roof collapsed as fighting raged around it. For hours she hid beneath the counter of her stall, hoping for the best.
Today, she is more concerned with Iraq’s rampant nepotism. Two of her five children have college degrees, one of them a master’s, but both are unemployed.
“If you’re connected to political parties they will secretly get you a government job,” says Umm Hadi, who makes about 25,000 Iraqi dinar (Dh 77) on a good 12-hour day — hardly enough for a family of seven.
Sharifa Taleb, an elegant woman in her 40s, and her family of six survive on the 60,000 dinars her builder husband earns every 10 days. She recently had to sell her mobile phone and a video-game console to make ends meet.
“It’s not a good life, there’s a lot of suffering and unemployment,” she says.
“People who do have work are public employees and politicians,” interjects shopkeeper Ali Nasser, 51. “[Before] there was a lot of fighting and no security, no stability. Now things are stable but financially it’s not good.”
Disenchantment with the government is widespread. Some also blame local officials for neglecting their own people.
“Officials who are from here have forgotten about their citizens,” says Abbas, an elderly mosque guardian, who asked that his real name not be used.
But the people are partly to blame, he adds. “The government is negligent but it seems the people are also undisciplined.”
After Sunni Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003 and the suburb’s name changed from Saddam City to Sadr City, after Mr al Sadr's father the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. In the early days, politicians flooded the streets, eager to convince residents that they would lift them out of their poverty.
“They said they would pave roads, build schools, hospitals,” recalls Abbas, sitting at a desk in the lobby of the mosque. Outside, a string of flags bearing the face of Imam Ali flutters in the late-morning breeze; below them, a collection of shoes await their praying owners.
Abbas hopes for better days. Sadr City, he says, lost many men to Saddam’s regime and to ISIS.
“Our men were the first to answer the call,” he says, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s call for civilians to take up arms against ISIS in 2014.
One of them was Abou Kamil Fartoussi, 45, who joined the predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary. Mr Fartoussi fought in the vicious battle for Beiji town in 2014 and was the only one from his unit to survive.
But he had seen war up close before then. During the battle of Sadr City in 2008 fighting raged around his home and mortar rounds exploded next to it. “Mortars were badly aimed by the Mahdi Army — but for the Americans, anyone was a target,” he says of Mr al Sadr's former militia.
Gunmen often blended in with the local population, making it harder for the US and Iraqi troops to distinguish between civilians and fighters. "They'd enter a house and force the family on to the roof or on the floor above them so our air weapons teams couldn't engage without killing the families," former US sergeant Konrad Ludwig told The National. "Sometimes they even lobbed bombs and mortars at civilian neighbourhoods, then used the mosques [loudspeakers] to say it was us."
Mr Fartoussi says the fighting forced a lot of people to leave his neighbourhood. “I personally evacuated people,” he says, sitting on a thin mattress on his living room floor.
Despite the detonation of an ammunition cache near his home on June 6, Mr Fartoussi is not concerned about security. Instead, he demands basic facilities such as public spaces for leisure.
“In Eid, we should have gone out to enjoy ourselves but we didn’t because there’s nowhere to go,” he says. “Sadr city is one big jail and the houses are the cells.”