An Enclave of Normalcy in Fearful Baghdad
In Shiite Slum Named for His Family, Radical Cleric Offers Aid, Hope

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

BAGHDAD -- In front of a blue metal gate, women in black abayas clutch food ration cards and exhibit a confidence rarely felt in the Iraqi capital. They will feed their families tonight. Several yards away, men sit behind wooden desks poring over hundreds of colorful folders, one each for Shiite families forced to flee their homes. Every family will be given a new life.

This busy office in the heart of the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City is not an arm of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Nor is it a relief agency. It is the domain of the 33-year-old Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Here, Sadr doles out aid to his neediest followers, from cradle to grave, filling a void in a desperately uncertain country.

"We get no help from Maliki. Only Sayyid Moqtada helps us," said Saleh al-Ghathbawi, a tall, balding clerk in a blue tracksuit, using the honorific that signifies Sadr's descent from the prophet Muhammad.

As the United States and Iraq proceed with a six-week-old security offensive to pacify the capital, Sadr's black-clad fighters have melted away. His advisers have fled to evade arrest. His own whereabouts are contested. U.S. intelligence officials say elements of his Mahdi Army militia have splintered off beyond his control.

Yet nowhere is Sadr's power more visible than in the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad that bears his family's name. Through legacy, symbolism and money, he has built up his street credentials by helping and protecting Iraq's Shiite majority. His militiamen have made Sadr City into the safest, most homogenous enclave in a capital scarred by war and ruled by a fragile government. It often appears to operate like a separate nation, where Sadr's words carry the weight of law.

The cleric's influence is everywhere. His representatives run the hospitals, the Islamic courts, the police, the municipal offices and the mosques. He pays for funerals and school books. He builds houses and controls inflation. He punishes the corrupt and those whose activities taint Islam or his privileged name.

"He is our marja," said Adil Murad Ali Muhammad, a retired civil servant in a gray jacket, referring to a supreme authority on Shiite religion and law.

Yet Sadr's stronghold remains one of Baghdad's poorest areas. Banners proclaiming the Sadr name overlook open sewage canals, unpaved roads and crumbling buildings.

Revitalizing his city, Sadr representatives say, is a key motive behind the cleric's uneasy cooperation with his arch adversary, the U.S. military, in recent weeks. Several reconstruction projects, some U.S.-funded, are already underway.

"We've asked the Americans to work in Sadr City responsibly, rationally and wisely," the district's mayor, Rahim al-Darraji, said this month. "Because Sadr City represents the determination and resilience of Iraq."

With a population of about 2 million people, Sadr City is the source of Sadr's political and religious clout. That, in turn, is pivotal to the future of his community, which he hopes to represent long after U.S. troops are gone. To understand Sadr's ambitions is to understand his relationship to his city and its residents.

An Atmosphere of Trust

At one entrance into Sadr City, a banner reads: "Enter it safely. The illuminated Sadr City."

The area is home to fighters linked to death squads who have driven thousands of Sunnis from their houses. Yet children and young men play soccer here in parks with manicured grass. Crowds mingle in open-air bazaars without fear of a suicide bomber. Women walk alone to shop, while men have long conversations in outdoor cafes, a sign of normalcy that has vanished from most of Baghdad.

Built in the late 1950s to house Iraq's poor, the area was later called Saddam City. After U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City to honor Moqtada al-Sadr's father, Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, a revered ayatollah who was assassinated in 1999 by Hussein's security forces.

Although he lacked his father's religious credentials, the younger Sadr gained popularity by melding Islam with fierce nationalism and by challenging the U.S.-led occupation.

Now, as sectarian strife transforms the nation, cleansing mixed areas, Sadr City is perhaps the best indicator of the Baghdad that is emerging from chaos. Here, Shiites walk, pray and converse, largely with other Shiites, basking in the trust afforded by mingling with their own sect.

In times of peace, Sadr's fighters are security guards, social workers, neighborhood watchmen. In times of mayhem, they become ambulance drivers, firemen and blood donors. In November, after a barrage of bombs and mortar shells killed more than 200 people in Sadr City, hundreds of militiamen took to the streets, ferrying the wounded to hospitals and dousing flames.

As day gives way to dusk, shopkeepers don't close. They turn on the lights. Everywhere else in the capital, curfew begins at 8 p.m. Not in Sadr City.

"We don't have a curfew," said shopkeeper Khadim Lilugatie, 31. "We can stay open until 1 a.m. if we want."

As he shook hands, his sleeve fell back, unveiling a tattoo on his forearm showing his allegiance to the Mahdi Army.

Despite U.S. pressure, the Maliki government has not challenged Sadr's authority. The prime minister, who depends on Sadr for political support, has publicly chastised the U.S. military for staging raids into Sadr City. American troops patrol the streets now, but U.S. generals concede that they would not be able to do so without Sadr's cooperation.

In interviews across Sadr City, residents questioned the need for the presence of U.S. troops, saying they already felt safe. They also questioned why U.S. troops were raiding the homes of militia members.

"If it wasn't for the Mahdi Army, there would be a lot of problems here," said Abdul Sattar Ali, 70, silver-haired and unemployed, who has lived in Sadr City for four decades.

A Well-Organized System

It is 3 p.m. Saleh al-Ghathbawi is in the office of Sadr's Social Committee. He is staring at a notation in the yellow folder of a Shiite family who had fled Baqubah, a town 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. It reads, "Reason for displacement: killing by Takfiris."

Hundreds of folders, stacked against the wall and under the stairs, contain similar references to Sunni insurgents. As the insurgents defy the new security plan with car bombings and targeted killings, Shiites are flooding here, turning to Sadr for assistance, deepening the homogeneity of his city.

They enter a well-organized system. Sadr City is carved up into 72 sectors, with roughly 3,000 families in every 8 sectors. Each sector is overseen by a Sadr representative and protected by the Mahdi Army.

Using funds from followers across Iraq as well as local merchants, Sadr's men deliver rice, tea, soap, beans, sugar, blankets and other items to the needy. They distribute cooking gas at 4,000 Iraqi dinars ($3.15) a canister. Outside Sadr City, it costs 24,000 dinars on the black market. Trucks full of goods flow out to Shiite enclaves outside Baghdad.

"This is the duty of the government. This is not our duty," said Abu Sadiq al-Shuweili, an administrative manager at the Social Committee office. "Where is the Displacement Ministry? Where is the Human Rights Ministry?"

Mixed Progress

On the fringes of Sadr City, yellow bulldozers line up next to a mound of dirt. Men are rebuilding a sewage main. In a nook elsewhere, Baghdad municipality workers in orange vests sweep a trash-strewn street. On a main road, newly planted palm trees hint at the city's promise.

The scenes stand in stark contrast to those in many other areas of Baghdad, particularly Sunni neighborhoods, where violence has stifled basic services and attempts to bring other progress. Yet Sadr City residents such as Muhammad, the retired civil servant, wonder when they will see a truly noticeable change. For 30 years, he has waited for improvement. Much of the enclave, he said, still lacks electricity and trash collection, and ongoing projects are taking too long.

"They dig a hole, and then they do nothing for months to fix the problem," said Muhammad. "Are these the streets of a capital city?"

Darraji, the mayor, said he had heard that the government has spent $40 million on projects in Sadr City.

"I don't see much rebuilding," he said. "Where has the money gone?"

He paused, then answered his own question: "This went to the contractors, not to the city."

Eleven days later, on March 15, gunmen ambushed his convoy, seriously wounding him. At the time, he was working with U.S. military commanders, in part to attract reconstruction funds to Sadr City.

The 'Protective Shield'

The slogans stare from walls and shop fronts along Dakhil Street, a bustling, dust-choked artery winding through the core of Sadr City. Near a concrete barrier, a white banner pledges: "The Mahdi Army will remain the protective shield of the city and the people."

"No. No. USA," reads graffiti scrawled on a shuttered store nearby.

Nearby, Ahmed Abu Hussein is seated on red-and-green carpet in his house, which is decorated with symbols of Shiite power and piety. A Mahdi Army commander who fought U.S. troops in the southern city of Najaf in 2004, Hussein is also the Sadr representative in charge of distributing social services to 1,700 households in Sadr City. The Mahdi Army, he said, is a popular army, whose job is just as much to assist Sadr's followers as to fight the U.S. occupation. Fighters make sure merchants don't inflate the prices of kerosene and cooking gas -- by force, if necessary.

They are widely believed to have infiltrated the police, the army and the Interior Ministry in efforts to defend their Shiite brethren.

Hussein said he and his men are growing apprehensive about the U.S. troops, even though the Americans are keeping a low profile in the area.

"They want to isolate the Sadr trend from society," said Hussein, short and muscular and wearing square, rimless glasses and a green-striped shirt with tan cargo pants. "They want to drag us into a war."

All his fighters "want to fight the Americans," he added.

Asked why they haven't risen up, he answered matter-of-factly: "It is the order of Sayyid Moqtada Sadr. He's telling us to avoid bringing to Sadr City the curses of war."

Seconds later, he added, "If Moqtada Sadr orders me to leave my family and sleep on the streets, I will go."

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