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City of death
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 08 - 2004

From Sadr City, Ahmed Mukhtar reports on a battleground that has failed to appear on Western TV screens
The neighbourhoods of Baghdad's most impoverished shanty town -- Sadr City -- are draped in black. Scores of mourning banners bearing the names of those killed in recent weeks of fighting in Najaf hang from fences, balconies and buildings along Sadr City's dusty, garbage-strewn streets. One banner laments a son killed "defending his country". Some bear photographs of the dead. A few have two, three, even four names squeezed onto a single black banner with an Iraqi flag and the remarkable reference that they were killed in the showdown against "the Occupying American forces". Most of the Iraqi dead are young, unemployed men who joined Al-Sadr's militia. Others are bystanders caught in the crossfire, such as a 14-year-old boy killed Sunday by a roadside bomb targeting a passing US convoy.
The fallout of the fighting in Najaf has had its impact elsewhere in Iraq, particularly in Sadr City where Al-Sadr's supporters mainly come from. The city located on the outskirts of Baghdad was named after Al-Sadr's father who was killed in 1999. It is home to more than 2 million residents -- mostly Iraqi Shia. Fearing a backlash from the Najaf battles, the Iraqi government imposed a curfew from 4pm to 8am. This, however, did not deter the Sadrist militiamen from attacking more targets. Despite an initiative made by Hussein Al-Sadr at the Iraqi National Conference to send a mediation mission to negotiate with Al-Sadr, fighting continued in the holy city and spilled over to other cities in the south.
There are no gold-domed mosques here and no historical sites to draw the world's attention. As it has been for decades, residents routinely complain that the suffering in Sadr City, severely oppressed during Saddam Hussein's regime, goes largely unnoticed.
The new term coined for Sadr City by its residents is "the valley of death" since the city was declared a closed area for days. Getting in and out was not an easy undertaking.
Members of Al-Mahdi Army were itching for a battle and already feeling like victors. Well-organised groups of militiamen stood guard, guns at the ready in case US troops appear in sight. Around the corner from Al-Oura market, an outdoor emporium largely abandoned because of recent fighting, fighters cruised around, waving AK-47s and shouting taunts urging Americans to come and get them.
Traps had been laid. I watched as fighters from Al-Mahdi brazenly planted more than a dozen hidden bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). First they set fire to tires. Next they sank the IEDs into the melted asphalt and let them cool. Within hours, there was no sign of the devices, which could be detonated with the remote control of a car alarm whenever US vehicles passed by.
"The US can't go any further," said one Al-Mahdi commander, Sheikh Amar, 28. "Even the helicopters aren't flying overhead."
Security remained a major concern for the residents of Sadr City. "The victim is always the poor man who seeks safety in a country with no security," said Abbass Jasim, a resident of the city. Abbass explains that he took his family to another house of his relatives in Ur neighborhood, yet gunfire reaches them even there. "I do not know where should I take my family, and when my suffering will end."
Khayriya Abboud, a housewife, called on the Iraqi government to intervene in order to uproot the IEDs which can blow up at any time.
Another resident, Hussein Al-Zuwaini, accused the two warring parties: "We know that wealth and position are the aim of all, but where can we go to escape violence?" Many residents put the lion's share of the blame on the interim Iraqi government, which they believe has been reluctant to take action to reinstate security in the city.
But Abu Thaer Al-Kinani, the spokesman of Al-Mahdi Army, begs to differ. When asked about the reasons that led to their uprising, he replied bluntly: "Criminal, terrorist, and provocative acts by the Americans and the Iraqi government, which is acting as an agent for the Americans." Al-Kinani also complained about the problems that are a consequence of the lack of security and stability in the country and the "failure to respond to and meet the Iraqi people's demands". "If these demands are met, neighbouring states as well as the rest of the world will be stable."
Al-Kinani pointedly criticises the US bombing of Najaf by military helicopters, saying, "The Iraqi people are being annihilated while the holy shrines are being desecrated."
It seems basically the continuation of US occupation of Iraq that is the engine behind Al-Mahdi Army's resistance, coupled with a personal commitment to Al-Sadr himself. The fact that Al-Sadr emerged in the last cycle of Najaf fighting as the only Iraqi leader standing up to the occupation has increasingly earned him a popular standing. "There can be no independent state under the grip of the occupation and the yoke of colonialism. We said from the beginning that we want a transfer of power and full sovereignty," Al- Kinani went on, "but still, it is the US forces that are controlling everything."
"Moreover, we demanded an elected and legitimate government that brings together all the sects and political parties." The Americans, however, are seen as the ones who appointed the interim government. "How can we build our Iraq with the Americans committing massacres? What is the difference between the past and the present?" All Iraqis, Al-Kinani went on, want an elected government capable of reinstating stability.
Abdul-Hadi Darraji, one of Al-Sadr's aides, denies any claims to independence on behalf of the interim Iraqi government. Instead, he sees it as receiving orders from the American government. "You should clarify this point. If the occupation troops say that the Iraqi government makes the decision, then is it Al-Jaafari -- meaning Ibrahim Al-Jaafari the Iraqi vice president, who is a Shia -- who ordered opening fire on the shrine of the leader of the faithful? I cannot imagine that this can be true."
Asked about the demands of Al-Sadr relative to a peaceful solution, Darraji says conditions must be met before negotiations can begin. "We want the occupation troops to leave the holy city. We also want a ceasefire and to put an end to the targeting of innocent Iraqis and the followers of Al-Sadr," Darraji said.


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