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In Baghdad, soccer fields built with millions of U.S. dollars are now symbols of blight

A neighborhood team goes through soccer drills on a field in Baghdad’s Sadr City. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

As the beating heat of the day gives way to night, the soccer fields of Sadr City swarm with young men partaking in what is no doubt Iraq’s favorite sport.

The evening bustle in this cramped and impoverished Shiite neighborhood looks far different from the worst days of Iraq’s sectarian violence, when some of these pitches were instead killing fields.

For Haider Jameel — janitor by day, soccer coach by evening — one of the patches of land, among a jumble of mechanic shops and scrap yards, has been a back yard for decades.

It went unused only during the grimmest periods of civil war, which peaked in 2006. The Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-U.S. cleric for whom the neighborhood is named, would use the area to stage attacks. Those the fighters kidnapped were often executed by a nearby dam.

Young men enter a field in Sadr City. The sign over the entry dedicates the soccer field to Mohammed Kamil , killed during sectarian fighting in 2008, according to the sign. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

But when the violence subsided, the Iraqi government and the United States began pumping in millions of dollars to clean up Sadr City. That’s when the scrap was cleared to make Jameel’s makeshift neighborhood pitch into a full-size soccer field.

The contractor who built the field — who did not want to be identified, out of fear for his safety — said he was paid $1.1 million for the job by the U.S. Army. But it’s difficult to see where that money went, despite his assurances that the site was once in a better state of repair.

There are no lights, no bleachers, no showers. The boys who play here use a nearby shop to wash. When it rains, the field floods and local residents chip in to buy new dirt to resurface it.

A barren field with a failing fence still serves as a soccer pitch in Sadr City. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

While this field, at least, remains in use, two others around Ghazaliyah, a mixed suburb in western Baghdad — made under the same contract for nearly a million dollars each — are deserted. They are little more than rubbish dumps, littered with broken bottles and smoldering trash.

In today’s Iraq, questions about the waste of U.S. funds have turned to questions about the waste of Iraqi money, and about why more of Iraq’s billions in oil revenue have not filtered down to ordinary people. Meanwhile, Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence is creeping back.

Last year, the number of violent deaths in Iraq surged to the highest level in five years. Soccer fields, which provide breathing space for youths in crowded neighborhoods such as Sadr City, have themselves become a target.

Attacks on crowds gathered to watch matches in Shiite neighborhoods have become increasingly common as the al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seeks to inflict civilian casualties.

Jameel’s field, like many in Sadr City, is named in memory of a local resident who played there before he was killed during the days of sectarian war. The sign on the gate bears a picture of the “sports martyr” Mohammed Kamil, soccer ball under his arm.

Neighborhood teams play soccer on dusty field in Sadr City. (Max Becherer/Polaris Images for The Washington Post)

The young boys who now train in the dust here talk of their hopes for a different future. But as they collect contributions from their parents to buy new soil for the million-dollar field’s dirt surface, they are reminded that they may not be able to rely on their oil-rich state to provide one for them.

Loveday Morris is The Post's Baghdad bureau chief. She joined The Post in 2013 as a Beirut-based correspondent. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.

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