Nir Rosen goes inside Baghdad's Shiite slums to witness life under Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
The great divide
As the bloodiest phase of Iraq’s civil war ends, Sunnis and Shiites are being driven into separate enclaves, governed by sectarian militias. Nir Rosen goes inside Baghdad’s Shiite slums to witness life under Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
Five years after a war allegedly launched to liberate Iraq's Shiite majority, American forces have been bombing Shiite neighbourhoods in Basra and Baghdad while their snipers and tanks remain on the ground in places like Sadr City. Iraq seems to have emerged from the worst phase of its civil war, but the victorious Shiite factions have turned their arms on one another in a fight over the spoils, battling for political power in advance of the upcoming provincial elections. But as the Americans attempt to secure an agreement with the government of Nouri al Maliki to legalise the long-term presence of troops in Iraq, Muqtada al Sadr and his followers remain a formidable obstacle. Whether or not Sadr has been weakened by the clashes in Basra and Sadr City, marginalising the Sadrists will be almost impossible, for they remain the only genuine mass movement in Iraq, with roots that long predate the fall of Saddam.
Until 2007 Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, co-operated with the Badr Organisation, the armed wing of the Iranian-created Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to purge Sunnis from Baghdad and Iraq. They were very effective, and their success is the best explanation for the decrease in violence. There are fewer people dying today because there are fewer left to kill; Sunnis and Shiites now inhabit separate walled enclaves, run by warlords and militias who have consolidated their control after mixed neighbourhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines. Since April 2007, American forces have erected a series of concrete walls and checkpoints throughout the city to divide warring Sunnis and Shiites. Though these walls helped dampen sectarian violence, they may have bolstered sectarianism, isolating Iraqis from their neighbours and leaving them dependent on militias like the Mahdi Army for food, supplies and protection.
Last December a friend picked me up from the house in Baghdad's Mansour district where I was staying, and we headed to the Shaab district of east Baghdad. We passed by an old Iraqi air force base that had been taken over by squatters after the war; poor Shiites lived in makeshift homes constructed of whatever bits of brick, aluminium and even cow dung could be found. Donkeys and other livestock sifted through mounds of rubbish, and sewage flooded the dirt roads. Barefoot children with matted hair ignored us as our car ponderously navigated a circuitous route to avoid certain checkpoints. My friend, who is from Shaab, put a tape in the cassette player: songs for the Mahdi Army. The singing was in praise of Muqtada al Sadr, and the men chanted that Muqtada had not left his home, that he preferred death to leaving Iraq; it had evidently been written in response to accusations Muqtada had fled to Iran for safety, which he had indeed done. My friend laughed: "Now we are the Mahdi Army!"
We drove past checkpoints manned by the new Sahwa, or "Awakening", militias. There are about 90,000 of them, but almost all are former Sunni insurgents now backed by the Americans to fight al Qa'eda. The guards at these checkpoints belonged to one of the few Shiite Awakening groups, which the Americans set up in an attempt to counter the influence of the Mahdi Army in the area. But the Awakening men wore masks to conceal their faces and avoid retaliation, and they were protected by Iraqi police who also manned the checkpoints.
When I visited Shaab and the neighbouring Ur district in 2006 and 2007, I saw Mahdi Army men openly manning checkpoints with Kalashnikovs and other weapons, carrying the Glock pistols the Americans had given to the Iraqi police as well as police-issue handcuffs. But by August 2007 the Mahdi Army's reputation had been tarnished by its sectarian killings, and many of its members were out of control. The American "surge" was going to focus on Baghdad, much of which was controlled by the Mahdi Army, so Muqtada knew his men were sure to be targets. Following clashes with ISCI in Karbala, Muqtada declared a "freeze" with the stated goal of "reforming" his army. Violence in Baghdad plummeted, demonstrating that the Mahdi Army bore much responsibility for the carnage.
But by the beginning of this year, the same Mahdi Army men stood on corners, observing the streets - only their weapons were at home. Nearly all of the area's Sunnis had been expelled, I was told; only the "clean" ones had been allowed to remain. The Mustafa mosque, in the Ur district, was once a Baath party office, but Sadrists took it over after the war. By 2006 they had converted it into a command centre from which to launch missions to arrest or kill radical Sunnis and former Baathists. That March, American and Iraqi forces raided the mosque, killing up to 17 men. In 2007, Safaa al Tamimi, the mosque's Sadrist imam, fled to Qom in Iran for safety, but his assistant Abu Hassan, the mosque's caretaker, remained.
Born in 1972, Abu Hassan is a muscular and voluble man, the informal leader of the Ur district. His father, he told us, had come up to Baghdad from southern Iraq as a child, married two women and fathered eleven children. In the 1950s, the state gave his family land in what is now Sadr City, where Abu Hassan was born. He was always a Sadrist, he told me with a smile, having followed Muqtada's father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, until his assassination in 1999. After the elder Sadr's murder, Abu Hassan said, he and his friends had established an underground armed resistance cell, though they failed to conduct any successful operations. Following the war, he and Sheikh Safaa took over the Baath party office and converted it into a mosque. Though the mosque had recently been demolished so that it could be rebuilt, Abu Hassan maintained an office in an adjacent one-room structure, where he sat on the floor to receive guests and supplicants from among the local Shiites dependent on the Sadrist office for food and supplies.
Some materials for the repair of the mosque, he said, had been donated, but the government-run Shiite religious endowment was controlled by the rival ISCI. "We always have problems with the Supreme Council", complained Abu Hassan. "They are untrustworthy and just want power." He was no less suspicious of the Sunni Awakening militias: "There is an Awakening group in the Fadhil neighbourhood," he said, "there is a man there who has killed hundreds of Shiites, beheaded many Shiites. He is well known by people for his terrible crimes. But later on they made him head of the Awakening in that neighbourhood. He is a criminal, he should be prosecuted. This is not logical."
In December, long before the March clashes, Abu Hassan was comparing the Supreme Council, which dominates the government, with Saddam Hussein. "Why did Saddam kill Shiites?" he asked me. "He was also afraid of Shiite masses. The Supreme Council doesn't reject occupation or even talk about it." "The Sadr Movement represents seventy five per cent of Iraqi Shiites and is a popular movement," he said, "only the Sadr Movement helps the poor and represents them."
His office, he said, supported one thousand families of martyrs and three thousand families of prisoners. Most of the displaced families they helped lived in other people's homes, he said, but many still lived in tents in the nearby Shishan, or Chechen, neighbourhood, so named because Iraqis thought Chechnya was very poor. The family of an unmarried Mahdi Army martyr receives seventy five thousand dinars a month (about $60), as does the family of an arrested man, though the family of a married Mahdi Army martyr receives twice as much.
Abu Hassan's office was rarely empty, and in one of my visits I found him distributing bags of clothes and rations to poor women in black abayas, many of whom were from displaced families, expelled by Sunni militias. Before the war, 80 per cent of Iraqis depended on the Public Distribution System, an efficient ration system established in 1996 that provided essential items for all Iraqi families. But the system has now stopped functioning because of security problems, corruption and sectarianism. Most families do not even receive 50 per cent of what they used to, and displaced Iraqis, especially Sunnis, receive nothing at all. In the meantime, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq's largest humanitarian organisation.
On another visit, the crowd at Abu Hassan's office included two young men working for the Iraqi security forces. One was a member of the Facility Protection Service, which protects ministries and government offices but is notoriously lawless and loyal to sectarian Shiite militias. The other man belonged to the Iraqi National Guard. Both proudly told me they were also members of the Mahdi Army. "We want you to know that most of the Sadrists are working for the government," said the FPS member. They listed their many friends who had been killed by Sunni militias. "I have been a solider in Iraqi army, the Iraqi National Guard, for three years," his friend said. "We saw that none of the political parties or movements are working for the benefit of the people except this movement. The Sadrists are devoting their time and effort to help Iraqi people. I thought the best way to help the people is by joining them."
One man had absconded to Abu Hassan's office because the Americans were looking for him. "They came to our house," he told me, "they arrested my brother, and after destroying our furniture they said that I'm wanted by them. They took him because he is my brother." Several men were seated on the floor awaiting Abu Hassan's arbitration services in a legal dispute over real estate. "We can't reach the registration directorate," they explained, because it is in the Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya. "We might get killed if we go there."
Abu Hassan's faithful assistant was a handsome young man called Haidar, thin and muscular with the dark skin of southern Iraqis. He assiduously did Abu Hassan's bidding, as well as feeding guests and making tea. Haidar and his family had lived in Abu Ghraib, in Anbar province west of Baghdad. He insisted that there had been no sectarian tensions before the war in this majority Sunni area; he played football together with Sunnis, he said. But after the battles in Fallujah in 2004, Haidar said, foreign Sunnis appeared in the neighbourhood, killing those they accused of being spies and threatening to slaughter the local Shiites. He and his family were forced to leave in 2006; Sunni radicals had begun to kill Shiite clerics and to distribute leaflets warning Shiites that they were apostates and had to leave.
Before they moved away, Haidar says, a six-year-old Shiite neighbour was killed by Sunni militiamen. Two hours after Haidar and his family left their home they received a call from Sunni neighbours in Abu Ghraib warning them that the militia had come looking for them as well. The family moved to the Shaab district, where the Sadrist movement eventually found them a home - a house that belonged Sunni who was forced out. "This house belonged to a terrorist and he was expelled. Not only him, others were also expelled," he said. There were many radical Sunnis in Shaab, Haidar says, until the Mahdi Army got rid of them.
"I don't think I'm able to go back," Haidar says of his old home, "because the tribes there now are against Shiites." Although the Anbar province is now more stable because of the powerful Awakening militia there, Haidar and his family, like other Shiites, do not feel reassured. "The Awakening are the same, they are the terrorists," he said. Haidar told me he would still like to take revenge for the death of one of his brothers, a policeman who was killed by Sunni militiamen.
Some 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes and forced to seek shelter elsewhere in Iraq. No system has been put in place to register their property or adjudicate property disputes, and few are likely to ever return home. In February, Haidar took me to the nearby Saddeh area, where hundreds of impoverished Shiites, many of them displaced by Sunni militias, live in makeshift homes on the outskirts of the city. There are about 300 houses, each with ten or twenty residents. Locals complain that they are harassed by the Americans and say the only help they receive is from the local Sadrists. Jasim Muhamad is an Iraqi Army veteran wounded during the American invasion of 2003. He and seventeen of his relatives, including eight children, now live in three shacks. They lived in Haswa, near Fallujah, until they received a letter from a Sunni group demanding that "infidel families" leave the neighbourhood within five days or they would be killed in retaliation for the murder and expulsion of Sunnis in Baghdad; those who ignored the warning, like Jasim's brother-in-law, were killed.
They told me that some women were killed when they returned to Haswa to transfer their children's school papers to Baghdad; since then no one has tried to return. "If I go back I will get killed," Jasim's wife said. Some three thousand families from Haswa were displaced, according to Jasim and his wife, and their homes looted; the Iraqi army told them to leave Haswa because it had become unsafe for them. But they believe that the Awakening Council members are the same people who expelled them - and that these same men would threaten them if they tried to return.
The Ministry of Migration provided them with beds, blankets and a small kerosine cooker, but nothing else. The Sadrist movement provides them with food, though they have no running water and rarely get electricity from the grid. Jasim has been unable to register for his pension as a wounded veteran because the ministries are not properly functioning. His brother has found occasional work in the sewage system, the family's only source of income. Only their older children attend school. The family members voted in the most recent elections for the Shiite Iraqi Alliance list but they complain that they have not received anything from the government, not even security.
Sadr City and other poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Baghdad are in a shocking state of disrepair, the fruits of a deliberate neglect that dates back to reign of Saddam. But in central Baghdad, the majority-Shiite Washash neighbourhood sits in squalor right next to the upscale Mansour district, where wealthy Baghdadis once packed stores and restaurants until sectarian fighting closed stores and drove pedestrians off the streets. The unpaved streets of Washash are flooded with filth, and electric cables hang low from rooftops, criss-crossing like old cobwebs. The Mahdi Army men in Washash - who are notorious, even among the Sadrists, for their brutality - used the neighbourhood as a staging point for attacks against Sunni militants and forays into Mansour, and the neighbourhood was among the first Shiite enclaves to be surrounded by concrete walls; there is only one entrance for cars, guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings in the concrete blocks allow pedestrians to squeeze through, one at a time. Almost all of the Sunnis who once lived in Washash were forced out or killed by the Mahdi Army. I saw more posters and banners of Muqtada and his father in Washash than anywhere else in Baghdad.
My driver, whose cousin lived in Washash, arranged in advance for us to meet the head of the tribal council, Sheikh Kazim, who guaranteed my safety. A Sadrist himself, he introduced me to Mahdi Army men as we strolled through his neighbourhood's dirt streets. Many displaced Shiites from wealthier majority-Sunni neighbourhoods have been forced to flee to Washash, where they settle in homes that belong to Sunnis purged or killed by the Sadrists; they scrape by with meagre incomes from whatever work they can find. "We are helping the people who have been displaced from other cities because of the sectarianism," Kazim told me.
Neighbourhoods like Washash and Shaab have become like refugee camps for Iraq's internal displaced. One man in Washash, who came from Dora, in south Baghdad, told me that Shiites were the minority there "and they started killing us in our houses. They did not get my son because he was at his college and we came to this area because it is has a Shiite majority". But one month after fleeing to Washash from Dora, he said, "the Americans and the Iraqi army came to our street and they blew up the door to our house and they arrested us and some of our neighbours, we don't know why. I was arrested by the American army with my son for eleven months and six days. Without any charges. The accused me of being terrorist and they don't have any proof. They released me and they kept my son and we don't know for what reason."
"As you know we consider the Iraqi army to be our sons and brothers," Kazim told me. "But unfortunately the army unit that is surrounding the area is giving false information about us. When the Iraqi army raid houses, they steal the mobile phones and money, attack the elderly people and falsely accuse people." In Washash, Kazim and his neighbours talked about the local Iraqi Army unit in the same way Sunnis would describe the Iraqi Police. While the police, whose ranks are filled with recruits from the Badr Organisation and the Sadr Movement, have often been implicated in the murder of Sunnis, many Sadrists perceive elements of the majority-Shiite Army - whose units are often loyal to Maliki or ISCI - as enemies. "They are dealing with us in a sectarian way," Kazim said, "not one hundred per cent, one thousand per cent." The Iraqi police were different, he said. "The Iraqi police can come without weapons and see if anyone would shoot one bullet. We will be responsible for them. It is only the unit of the Iraqi army that surrounds this area who are passing false information [to the Americans]. We don't have any problem with the police."
We passed men wheeling in goods for sale on pushcarts and at an intersection I found a tractor the Sadrists had provided as a rubbish lorry to clean the streets. On the corner, women in abayas sat by dozens of colourful jerrycans; they were waiting for kerosene that was supposed to be delivered by the Mahdi Army, but they claimed the Iraqi Army was preventing it from arriving. They had been waiting for four days.
I was surprised by how eager they were to talk to me. "My dear," said an elderly woman with tribal tattoos on her chin, "we don't have electricity, kerosene, or gas and we are surrounded and we have been insulted. Where should we go? To whom should we complain? Only the Mahdi Army brings us kerosene but now the Iraqi army is not allowing them." The Mahdi Army, they said, also cleaned the streets and provided security at night. "It is not true that the Mahdi Army are terrorists," she said, "the Americans are the real terrorists."
The Sadrists have often been characterised as a movement of angry young men, but these women were unabashed in their enthusiasm. A younger woman explained to me that "without the Mahdi Army our women or girls could not go outside. We are under a lot of pressure. They are defending us like they are defending their own sisters". She had been expelled from the majority Sunni town of Mahmudiya, she told me, after two of her sons were murdered. "The Mahdi Army are the only ones who gave me a shelter and they are protecting me and my daughters. The terrorists killed my sons with a car bomb. One of them was married and he left behind four children and I have twelve people to look after. May god bless the Mahdi Army."
"It is like a prison inside Washash," one man said. "Tell me what is the difference between here and prison? We are surrounded by a wall which prevents us from going to other neighbourhoods. Our sons and daughters cannot go to the schools in the Arabi neighbourhood, which is the closest area. Only this wall divides us. What is the use of this wall? "Nobody is helping us. Nothing. No education, no electricity, no water. Our children are not going to schools anymore. The services we have are only through the help of the Sadrists, may god bless them. They are cleaning, they are helping the ones who need some money. They are bringing the kerosene and giving it to families."
The relative calm that has followed the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad's neighbourhoods may not hold for long. One local elder warned that "if it is going to be like this for a long time the young men will lose their minds. Maybe we will too. We can't control our sons. It will be very bad. We can't keep our sons quiet anymore." They led me through the market that served the neighbourhoods around Washash before the wall was built. "This wall ruined our life and our business," one shopkeeper said. "Would you accept to walk in this mud?" a man asked me, "people are holding their sons in order to cross the pools of water on their way to the schools. It's as if Washash is not on the map. Even the government doesn't care about it. There are no services, no schools and we are not on the map." For these Iraqis there is essentially no state; they are dependent on the Sadrists for sustenance and security, which the central government cannot provide.
"The policy of walls is wrong," a tribal leader told me. "The Americans think that they are providing security for the people. But what is the use of safety? If a man is hungry, he will do bad things because he is hungry." We walked up to the walls separating Washash from Mansour. They showed me the narrow opening between the barriers; behind it was an Iraqi army checkpoint. When the soldiers saw me filming, they walked toward the opening, but the men were unfazed. "He won't dare come in," one said. "We will **** him up."
Nir Rosen has reported from Iraq for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of The Triumph of the Martyrs.