There’s no explosions: it’s not an important area

Traffic, security, freedom and justice in Thawra

Andrea Schmidt

March 29, 2004

Sadr City is a massive subdivision tacked on to the North end of Baghdad. It is home to 2 million of Baghdad’s 5 million residents. It is a Shia area, and mostly very poor.

During the regime era, the area was known as Saddam City and was strictly off limits to foreigners. Shia were kept out of universities and government jobs throughout the 80s and 90s – a silent freeze-out of the majority of Iraqis through which Saddam sought to divide Sunni and Shia and shore up his control. Many were isolated in Saddam City by poverty, and by the Mukhabarat.

Now, after the war, it has been re-named after Sayyid Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr, who used to preach against the US and ‘Satan,’ the name for Saddam that everyone here understood. Not surprisingly, in 1999 he became one of many Shia religious leaders to be assassinated by Saddam’s regime. But many residents still refer to the area as Thawra, a name that predates the occupation, the war and Saddam -- Thawra, which means ‘Revolution’.

I talk to some street kids hanging around squares in Baghdad’s city center, hawking electrical wire scavenged and stripped from bombed-out buildings. They ask me if I’m American and I hastily reply no, I’m Canadian, then feel sheepish about splitting hairs. I ask them where they’re from. “Thawra,” they reply with big smiles and in such a way that I fully expect them to start flashing hand signs.

That name, “Thawra,” is supposed to strike fear in the hearts of foreigners, who more or less try to avoid the area. Many of our translators come from well-off, well-educated Sunni backgrounds and have roughly the same reaction to the idea of spending time outside a car in Thawra that those of us who grew up in Toronto’s Bloor West Village or North Toronto have toward spending significant amounts of time in Dixon -- a combination of disdain, fear for their safety and incomprehension: “Why would you want to go there?”

I drive up with Khaled and Ahmed, two young men for whom that’s a non-question, since they’ve lived there all their lives. We go in the late afternoon, our windows rolled down to catch the evening breeze as it rises.

I ask Khaled why everyone is so scared of Sadr City, and why it is considered so unsafe. “I don’t know why they think it’s unsafe,” he answers. “Stupid people think this area is crazy or ali baba or something but when people come to the area they see that this is life. This is human, this is also human, I think.”

Portraits of Mohammed Al-Sadr have replaced the ubiquitous portraits of Saddam that used to stand on the street corners. There are also pictures of other religious leaders who were assassinated by the last regime. The face of Moqtada Al-Sadr, Mohammed’s twenty-seven year old son who has a massive following in the area’s mosques, is omnipresent. Moqtada, who during last Friday’s prayer in Kufa, near Najaf, denounced the US-designed Interim Constitution as “a terrorist law”* and between chants of “No No Israel, No No America,” urged those praying to “seek freedom and democracy in a way that satisfies God.” ** I ask Khaled if people in Thawra like Moqtada as much as they liked his father. Yes, they do.

There are a lot of sheep and goats, grazing on mounds of garbage on street corners and vacant lots. And compared to Baghdad City Center, the traffic is well- regimented. Several men direct it at each intersection. “Who are they?” I ask. They’re Moqtada’s men, and men from the Hawza, Khaled replies. “Why are they directing traffic?” “Because people here like to help.” Indeed. The religious groups have organized not only to direct traffic, but to take care of security and mosques.

I ask Khaled if there’s more freedom here now than before the war. He refuses to indulge the "I spoke to one Iraqi and he said" game: “Let’s ask people what they think,” he says, “maybe for one person there’s more freedom, maybe someone else feels there’s less…”. So we start by asking Ahmed, who immediately grows grim: “There’s no freedom and no security. I think Iraqi rights are missing. Simple things like explosions, it’s not safe – there’s no rights in my country.” He also cites a lack of jobs as a major problem. Ahmed is self-employed as the driver of a beat up old cab.

We visit a family. Khaled introduces me to Mohamed, one of three brothers who live in the house along with their wives, ten children and his mother. His little girl has a devastating skin disease that he has been told is caused by DU poisoning. He shows me around their almost completely unfurnished house and says that he has had to sell all the furnishings to try to buy medicine for her, but it isn’t enough. He is unemployed, and the CPA medical assistance people have not helped him access the medication. He has contacted the Ministry of Health, but has received no answer. He is angry: “Now that Saddam is gone, I still don’t have rights. Now I have trouble getting work, I can’t get a salary. Before the war or after the war, we still don’t have rights.”

I have my mini-disc recorder with me and I want to speak to the women who have silently accompanied us through the house . I ask Mohamed’s wife if I can interview her. He cuts in: “She doesn’t speak well.” That means no.

Khaled points out the headquarters of the Badr Army/Organization, which returned from exile in Iran ‘after’ the war, and has set up headquarters in an old Baathist ministry building in Thawra. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, with which the Badr Organization is affiliated, is a member of the Interim Governing Council. Next door, occupying another section of the old regime compound, are a group of squatters who needed housing and took it. Something about this makes me happy. Something about the fact that technically speaking, it is illegal to squat old ministry buildings in Iraq – a CPA order that seems to be enforced rather selectively in the squatters’ camps around town. And here is a GC member organization and poor people defying the order, side by side in the same compound.

Apparently US troops don’t come through Thawra all that visibly anymore. I see only one patrol all evening. There’s plenty of other men patrolling the streets with Kalashnikovs though, men doing “grassroots security” duty for groups of neighbors celebrating Muharram. It is 9 o’clock and there are tons of people outside. Muharram music is blaring in numerous spots; a video of a Sheikh preaching is being projected onto an outdoor wall and people are watching.

Khaled reflects on one of the ironies of the area’s continued marginality: “Before, people, cab drivers, used to be scared of coming here. Now, people are saying that it is maybe better in Thawra. There’s no explosions, it’s not an important area. People here like to help, people here are friendly really. Yeah, there’s problems, but…We hope for peace and freedom for everyone in Iraq and everyone in the world. We hope for justice for everyone.”

Justice… Watching the fires burning garbage on the street median, and catching a final glimpse of Sadrs father and son on a billboard as we leave the area, it’s somehow difficult to believe that anyone will be able to maintain the theory that Thawra isn’t an important area for long.

* Source: AFP ** Source: WorldNet (Note: I attended Friday prayer in Kufa, but am retroactively relying on news services for translation. Sketchy.)

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This report was written by Andréa Schmidt for the Iraq Solidarity Project. The Iraq Solidarity Project is a Montreal-based grassroots initiative to provide direct non-violent support to Iraqis struggling against the occupation; strengthen the mobilization against economic and military domination and anti-war work in Quebec and Canada; and build links of solidarity between struggles against the occupation of Iraq and struggles against oppression in Canada and Quebec.

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