Everything Changes so quickly

Thawra under attack

Andrea Schmidt

April 6, 2004

At 8 PM on Sunday night, Thawra looks like it is under curfew. At a time when they are normally thronging with people and filled with noise, the streets are dark, and all the shops are closed and locked for the night. Every few blocks we see groups of twenty or so young men in black moving restively and carrying guns – members of Moqtada Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, patrolling their neighborhood. Other than that, the only people we see out are lined up in front of the Sadr hospital gates, waiting for news of the injured and the dead.

We hear tank fire in the distance, and drive past a burning US humvee. A few streets later, we pass a group of five US tanks; tense looking soldiers surround cuffed detainees.

"Everything changes so quickly," says Khaled, one of the young men with whom I am traveling. At noon, when he had left the area for the center of Baghdad, things were quiet in Thawra.

Indeed, at noon Moqtada's people were demonstrating downtown in Firdaus Square in front of the Palestine and Sheraton hotels -– yet another demonstration in a week-long series of protests to denounce Paul Bremer's decision to shut down Sadr's Al-Hawza newspaper for "making the security situation unstable" and "encouraging violence against the Coalition Forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)," by claiming that US troops were responsible for the destruction of an Iraqi police building in February.

The exact line of the occupiers' strategy is hard to discern. Is it to keep destabilizing the situation enough to qualify the transition to pseudo-sovereignty planned for June 30th as impossible and justify their continued presence here? Or is it to force a confrontation with the segments of the Iraqi political scene that they most want to see neutralized before the 'hand-over'? Whatever the exact nature of the strategy, shutting down the paper was a deliberate provocation. And it has been followed by more actions on the part of occupation authorities that are hard to interpret as anything but inflammatory attempts to fuel a frustrated reaction from Shiite loyal to Moqtada.

On Saturday night, Iraqi police fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Baghdad's Tahrir Square. According to media reports, three demonstrators were killed. So at Sunday's demonstration, when the angry and unarmed crowd of several hundred moved toward them, the US soldiers who guard the hotels from tanks and towers behind blast walls shot into the crowd, injuring at least two people.

Around the same time on Sunday, news began to reach Baghdad that protests in Kufa, Moqtada's base just outside of Najaf, had been shot at by Spanish and Salvadoran occupying forces. Twenty people were killed, according to news agencies, and over sixty injured.

So perhaps we should have known that things would come to this. We had driven into Thawra at 6:30 PM to meet with some people about organizing a film screening. As we arrived at the squatters' camp, we saw tire smoke in the distance and heard machine gun fire. We were told that there was fighting between Moqtada's people and US troops on the other side of the neighborhood, and that it wasn't a good evening to discuss anything.

Ahmed and Khaled drove me back toward the center of the city, but as we approached the blast-wall and private security protected hotel where I was supposed to meet other friends for the evening, I got frustrated. I didn't come to Iraq to watch the occupation from behind blast walls in upper class Jadriya where the old regime used to play. I came out of some desire to work for justice and to demonstrate solidarity with people struggling against the occupation –- and I have become angered by the lack of connection the anti-war and anti-occupation movement seems to have built here to the Shiite communities who were most horrifically oppressed under the Ba'athist regime and continue to be both politically and economically incredibly marginalized in occupied Iraq. Tonight, those people are the people of Thawra…

Khaled was convinced by my rant, but worried about my safety. I was worried about his safety, since he was the one accompanying a foreigner at this particularly tense time. We agreed not be worried, and Ahmed turned the car around once again.

Still, when we return, we are surprised by the eerie empty streets. Machine gun fire continues in the darkness and Khaled and Ahmed both want to go to make sure their families are OK. They are, though the younger children are scared of the gunfire and the airplanes flying too low overhead.

At Khaled's house the family is gathered in the living room. We ask what happened and it seems that Moqtada's men took control of several police stations and local government buildings in Thawra in the late afternoon. US occupation forces responded with tank and helicopter fire. The neighborhood shut down, except for the fighting.

The men in the family reminisce about the uprising that took place when Saddam had Moqtada's father, Sayyid Mohamed Sadiq Al-Sadr, and his two elder sons assassinated in 1999. They remember the days of fighting with Saddam's security forces that ensued, and the blood and the death. Khaled tells me that the streets of his neighborhood tonight remind him of the way they looked then. This story has played itself out in Thawra many times before.

The only silver lining in all this: "Maku madrasa." There's no school for the kids tomorrow.

It is 9:30 and with erratic shooting audible in the environs, with no one on the street but US occupation forces and a few members of the Mehdi army, it is too late and too dangerous to drive back in to the center of the city. Khaled's family graciously allows me to stay with them for the night.

We hear the sound of missiles striking. I ask Khaled's nineteen year-old sister if she is afraid. No. We sleep.

On Monday morning, we go to the hospitals in the area. Conversations with hospital managers indicate that in the range of fifty people were killed by US occupation forces fire, and over 150 have been injured. Eight US soldiers were also killed.

In the hospital we are taken to the emergency area where we meet some of the injured. Among them is a fourteen year old boy, lying unconscious, breathing through a tube in his nose and receiving blood. He was shot by US fire that penetrated a closed door.

Outside in the hospital courtyard, an ambulance driver tells us how US troops had shot at him while he was trying to move the injured. A young man who has come to donate blood tells me, "I am a follower of Al-Sistani, not Moqtada. But if one of us is injured, all of us is injured, and if Moqtada says to fight, I will fight." No one seems to expect that the conflict will subside, in spite of the cool morning's apparent calm.

The streets of Thawra are filled with people, but many shops and most of the market stalls remain closed. A major intersection is still occupied by US tanks, and US tanks also surround Sadr's Baghdad offices. The humvee we saw burning last night is still smoldering, surrounded by dancing, yelling kids. Tension seems to rise palpably in Thawra as the morning wears on.

What will the evening bring? How will the Mehdi army respond to the occupation forces' assault on their people, and what sort of punishment will occupation forces seek to inflict?

I don't want to impose on Khaled's family for another night. So Khaled and Ahmed accompany me back to Baghdad city center, where I write this report from behind blast walls and feel sick that this is the best our movements can do.

This report was written by Andrea 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.

Taxonomy upgrade extras: