Sadr City Sings Its Praises of Cleric

A U.S. sweep of militia forces in the Baghdad slum has only boosted support for him.

By Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — The singing could be heard from more than a block away as the pickup truck careened along the unpaved streets of District 10 deep in the heart of Sadr City.

Crammed into the flatbed, 25 mostly young men hoisted their semiautomatic weapons, a few of them carrying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers.

Despite a five-day onslaught by U.S. troops intent on clearing the poor Baghdad neighborhood of supporters of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, late Saturday they were still visible, they were still armed, and they were singing. "The Shiites will be victorious," they sang, smiling broadly with a campfire look of good cheer.

Residents waved at the men, pointing and saying, "Mahdi army" — referring to the militia loyal to Sadr, whose supporters are occupying the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, south of the capital.

Even as the takeover of the shrine has dwarfed all other news from Iraq, the U.S. military has launched what it calls one of its largest urban initiatives yet in the neighborhood where Sadr has his biggest base of support. Scores of Iraqis reportedly have been killed in the sweep.

The military estimated Friday that in the preceding 24 hours, 50 Al Mahdi fighters had been killed, but that number appeared high given the relative scarcity of the black banners usually posted to notify the neighborhood of a death.

And the jubilant singing of the young men told a story of continuing defiance.

Sadr City appeared more supportive of Sadr on Saturday than it did before the U.S. sweep and the Najaf standoff. Because much of the cleric's appeal to poor Shiites has been his willingness to stand up to the Americans, the U.S. operations here and in Najaf have only served to rally support for him. That is all the more true in Sadr City, where the Americans appeared to have received little or no help from Iraqi security forces or police.

"What he's doing in Najaf makes us stronger," said Khalid Jassim, a 39-year-old tailor who was talking with friends at a car repair shop as the sun set. "Everybody now is part of the Mahdi army."

That is far from true, but in Sadr City, with a population of about 2 million, widespread anti-American sentiment has hardened in recent days. On the walls of the houses, even the graffiti are committed to protest. "Yes, yes … to the IED that terrified Americans," reads one message, referring to what is known as an improvised explosive device. Another says, "Peace upon the IED." Some children carry toy rocket-propelled grenades, pretending to be Sadr's insurgents.

In the sprawling neighborhood, the stench of open sewers is pervasive; water merely trickles out of many taps, making it difficult to wash, and that water can cause typhoid and intestinal diseases. Electricity is off much of the time.

Only a small percentage of Sadr City residents belong to Sadr's militia, but there appeared to be wide community support for the fighters' activities even among people who are not followers of the cle ric. The slum is named after the cleric's father, who was assassinated under the Saddam Hussein regime.

"When people buy food, they buy a bag for their families and a bag for the Mahdi," said Mohammed Sugheir, 35, who was at the car repair shop with Jassim.

Taha Saddoun, 37, who has a small storefront where he repairs refrigerators, described himself as a supporter of the moderate Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, but he said he also admired Sadr's fighters. "The Mahdi guys are really brave men," he said.

What happens next in Sadr City, Saddoun said, will depend on Najaf. "If there is fighting in Najaf, things will escalate again here," he said. "The Americans are trying to scare off the Mahdi army, but this is the Shiite resistance, and it is all over Iraq now."

Residents say Sadr is not about to go into politics, as sought by Iraqi officials who are trying to negotiate a peace deal with him. "He will not enter politics until the occupation has ended," said Jassim, the tailor, his tone confident.

As for a political program, Sugheir, like several Sadr City residents, noted only one tenet: "He wants the American troops to leave."

Saddoun said he believed that the Americans were so antagonistic toward Sadr's militant stance that they were willing to punish all of Sadr City to ensure the cleric was defeated. "The Americans don't want the Sadr [approach] to be effective. The evidence is all around you — look," Saddoun said. He pointed to the bare lightbulb in his shop, which was dark because there was no electricity, and gestured to the curb, where rotting food and debris lay heaped.

Underpinning this view, a number of Sadr City residents said, is the harsh reality that Americans have accomplished little to improve the living conditions despite repeated promises by U.S. officials of jobs and reconstruction.

From the American standpoint, the lack of security in Sadr City has made it all but impossible to do any major projects. "We've told them, we'll come and rebuild if their guys will stop shooting at us," a U.S. diplomat said in Baghdad.

For most residents, the reality is the unfulfilled promises.

"Electricity, sewers, road works — these are what the people need — and foodstuffs. Even if the Americans provided these things, we would be happy," taxi driver Saleh Haider Ajeel said from his bed at Ibn Nafees Hospital on the edge of Sadr City.

Ajeel was shot Wednesday morning. He said U.S. troops had fired on him as he was walking to his garage to start the day's driving. Because the bullet entered under his arm and exited through his chest, it was impossible to determine whether the bullet had come from the Americans.

Still, the phenomenon of Iraqis being shot simply because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time has been a recurring problem for the Americans. Each time such incidents happen, it deepens the anger and skepticism among Iraqis about the Americans' reasons for being in the country.

In the same hospital as Ajeel was a mentally disabled man who had been walking with his father and a push-cart operator, both of whom had been seeking work. As the cart operator moved from shop to shop, he said, the Americans opened fire. He said he crouched down and tried to run to safety but was hit. The other man was in the hospital with a shrapnel wound.

In theory, both men could have been Al Mahdi fighters, but their stories and their politics suggested otherwise. Both said they supported neither Sadr nor the Americans.

A major issue that the Iraqi interim government and the Americans have yet to grapple with is that even if Sadr was defeated, his followers would remain, most of them angry, poor and with little sense of hope.

"Look at all of us," Sugheir said, gesturing to the 12 men at the car repair shop. "Every one of us is unemployed, and every one of us has a family to care for."