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Behind the Wall: Inside Baghdad’s Sadr City

ISSUE:  Summer 2009
A crane hoists a large concrete wall into the air
A US Army crane hoists a concrete barrier into place in Sadr City (Petr David Josek / AP Images).

As the crowd of chanting men grew around us, my translator gave me a sidelong glance.

“We should leave now,” he said.

Normally I complained when a translator told me it was time to go, but I felt the urgency too. I looked around at the crowd, continuing to swell. Those who were aware of my presence, the presence of a foreigner, did not look happy. It was easy to believe this angry mob might suddenly use me as a stand-in for the American army they hated so much. I backed out of the building and walked toward the car without questioning, calmly but quickly, and with the sense I had just witnessed something monumental, precipitous.

It was June 2003, and Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most influential leaders of the Shia branch of Islam in Iraq, had just formally called for armed resistance against the US military. Sadr’s decree went out at noon prayers, still a veiled threat at the time, but the message was clear. By late afternoon, hundreds, if not thousands, of young men swarmed the Sadr office in Sadr City—and Sadr offices all over the country—to become members of the Jeish al-Mehdi. The army of the Mehdi—the long prophesied imam and redeemer who will cleanse the earth in the last days. His army. The Mehdi Army. The Jeish al-Imam. JAM, as the US military would acronymize them.

Eight months later, the Jeish al-Mehdi engaged US troops in Baghdad and Najaf, bloody battles that cost the US few troops but proved that the Mehdi were far more interested in fighting than in strategy. Soldiers who saw action in Falluja against Sunni insurgents were not embarrassed to admit that the Shiite guerillas worried them much more. Instead of the hit-and-run tactics of the Sunni resistance fighters, who rarely gave the military a chance to shoot at them, the Mehdi adopted a strategy of full frontal attacks. They were easy targets, but undaunted. I have no doubt that many of the men I have met inside the movement, especially during that first uprising, were certain paradise awaited them.

As a young correspondent fiercely opposed to the US occupation, I wanted desperately to find an honorable resistance, so I, too, was drawn to the Mehdi. The class arguments and anticolonial sentiments initially advanced by many of the followers of Sadr, the Sadrieen, were acceptable, even supportable. Their religious conservatism and belief in a state led by clerics were less appealing. But somehow I could forgive that. These were the poorest of the poor, reviled by most Iraqis as uneducated, as rabble; I could understand how the rhetoric of being God’s chosen ones would appeal to them. What I didn’t understand then was how quickly the logic of violence makes everything impure.

Sadr City, where the militia was born, is still a Mehdi stronghold. When I first visited in 2003, its streets were flooded with raw sewage, piles of trash seemed to fill every vacant space, and goats and sheep grazed in narrow alleys and larger thoroughfares on whatever refuse they could scavenge. At that time, thousands of men showed up each Friday afternoon for prayers in the hot, dusty street fronting the Sadr office. Moqtada al-Sadr preached a boycott of the government appointed by the Americans, and the prayers often took on the air of a political demonstration. Such gatherings had been banned by Saddam Hussein for exactly that reason.

Baghdadis have a love-hate relationship with the neighborhood, but the fact is that the majority of people in Iraq’s capital live in areas like Sadr City; more than four million are crowded into impoverished slums. In Sadr City, which was emphatically called “Saddam City” under the dictator’s reign, the neighborhood’s population far exceeds the number of people its infrastructure was designed to serve, and on three of its four sides it has sprawled to house newcomers, some in little more than one-room cinderblock dwellings with no running water and jury-rigged electricity. Beginning in 2003, the streets of the slum saw a succession of uprisings against and counteroffensives by the US military and Iraqi government. With the intervention of Shiite religious authorities, and more recently with the Iranians playing a possible role, the fighting has ended each time in a political resolution—allowing the militia to claim victory and each time emerge more visibly powerful.

The Mehdi took full of control of Sadr City in 2005 and began moving into other neighborhoods in preparation for a wider offensive. Despite the chaos taking place across Baghdad, when the militia was in control, attacks inside Sadr City dropped considerably and many residents credited the Mehdi. Initial campaigns to clean streets and provide aid and security for refugee families also increased Moqtada al-Sadr’s popularity. “Sadr is the only one who cares about us,” people told me. “The government does nothing.”

By 2007, Shiite militias had taken over a number of neighborhoods in Baghdad, cleansing Sunnis across the capital. The defeat led Sunni militias to declare a cease-fire with the US, which in return has supported the Sunni militiamen in protecting their neighborhoods from the Jeish al-Mehdi.

After heavy fighting during March and April 2008, the US military erected a wall along the southern edge of Sadr City, part of a spree of wall building across Baghdad. The walls were a de facto US military endorsement of Baghdad’s new order; Sadr City was the last neighborhood to succumb. After the fight over the building of the wall, which turned most of the buildings on both sides of the corridor to rubble, the Iraqi government and the Sadrieen negotiated a settlement whereby only Iraqi soldiers could patrol north of the wall. Some militia leaders and political figures were exempted from arrest, and time was given for militia leaders to flee and for weapons to be hidden before the Iraqi army entered Sadr City. South of the wall, where the US military continues its operations, soldiers proudly guide journalists through markets where merchants can once again operate without paying taxes levied by the militia.

“Their capabilities are severely, severely degraded,” Captain Andrew Slack of the First Armored Division told me. “They have talking power—threats, graffiti—but they don’t have the means to contest coalition forces right now.”

When the occupation began, I was often younger than the US soldiers I was interviewing. By 2008, that dynamic had changed, and as I walked around their sector, it occurred to me that some of Slack’s men hadn’t been old enough to drive when US tanks first entered Sadr City. Worse, as I watched the troops fruitlessly search for suspects at homes they had visited two and three times before, I realized that many of them didn’t even know why they were here. Their knowledge of Iraqi society was minimal, and they often relied on my limited Arabic to communicate. I was happy to do what I could, especially for bored troops pulling a cordon, reduced to smiling weakly at the Iraqis passing by or communicating in single words (“Stop,” “Yes,” “No”). The platoon leader, through his translator, badgered residents about the whereabouts of their sons and took pictures of faces to be uploaded to biometric databases. No one knew where their sons were, and Slack’s soldiers were incredulous.

I often find it hard to listen to US troops speak of the situation in Iraq, but not to Slack. Soft-spoken and likeable, he saw heavy combat while serving in Anbar province in 2005 and 2006. To me, he displayed an understanding of the dualities, complexities, and contradictions of the military’s years of occupation—a subject many officers and soldiers refuse to discuss. They insist that they have only been serving in a particular area a short amount of time and cannot comment on the conduct of the previous unit. I do not doubt that some of their refusals are sincere, but it suggests that the military has a fragmentary and disconnected view of a fight that is seen in very different terms by Iraqis. Iraqis tend to mark time not by events like Saddam Hussein’s capture or the turnover of power from the US occupation authorities to a handpicked government, but by the rounds of sectarian cleansing, destruction of cities and uprisings, or worse, when a family member was blown up, assassinated, kidnapped, or incarcerated. Many cannot forget the chaos and looting that followed the invasion.

With a raised fist, he promised bloodshed. He invoked his own father, who had fought against the British.

“The Mehdi Army was kind of able to step into that vacuum,” Slack said, “and they became the government that provided fuel, basic needs and services, all the essentials that people needed. People depended on them to get … sugar, flour, water, electricity, and fuel—everything they needed to survive.”

He stopped and pointed to a small poster of Sadr on the wall of a market across the street. “People know that it’s not tolerated by coalition forces or the Iraqi Army to display propaganda that shows guys with weapons … You still will see propaganda like what you see on the wall right there,” he said. “Things like that are all over the city,” Slack said. “Although it’s hard to take in and comprehend that JAM is also a political party—it’s one of the most popular in Iraq.”

What is decidedly unpopular are Baghdad’s walls. Constructed of “Jersey barriers” or “T-barriers,” interlocking pieces that are lifted into position with a crane and stand anywhere from four to eighteen feet high, they first appeared like oversized concrete Legos around US installations in 2003 to stop car bombers. The fortifications grew larger and more complex as the city became more dangerous. Then they began to appear in other parts of Baghdad, blocking roads and choking a city already beset by traffic problems. In some streets, the walls have been painted over with murals; in others they are covered with advertisements. In Sadr City, the wall demarcating the US area of operations is painted a “calming” blue, dotted by circular watchtowers at major intersections. It reminds me of the walls the Israeli government has constructed in the West Bank.

“The wall and all the operations that accompanied the wall were all in an effort to cordon off Sadr City and sort of isolate it. This was their home-base,” Slack explained. “It’s sort of a contained area now.”

A small group of Iraqi men line a street, holding a banner and an Iraqi flag.
A US soldier stands by as Iraqis rally outside the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad (Mohammed Khodor / AP Images).

Baghdad began as a walled city—and perhaps it will always be.

For a brief period after the invasion, it looked like the walls were coming down. I remember watching Iraqis removing the bricks of Saddam’s feared Abu Ghraib prison to construct housing, the potent symbolism of that gesture. But the trend of taking down walls was soon reversed. Within a year, the palace complex—what would later become the Green Zone—went from a compound guarded by a handful of soldiers who had sandbagged small machine-gun emplacements to miles of walls and wire, choking traffic, causing confusion and increasingly making areas “no-go” for the average Iraqi. The American presence, per se, was not a problem for most people—but American attempts to extend power and to control ground were. Guests were welcome. Occupiers were not.

Before long, especially within Sadr City, people began to draw comparisons to the British occupation that followed World War I. British tactics of the early twentieth century called for building a circle of blockhouses around a defiant village or neighborhood and essentially starving out the residents. The tactic of building walls now is not much different; both are “force multipliers,” a term used by the US military that could be read, in the starkest sense, as a sign of an insufficient number of boots on the ground. Aylmer Haldane, the British general who commanded forces in Iraq against insurgents in 1920 and 1921, wrote frequently of his requests to the Ministry of Defense for more troops. In the meantime, he secured what ground he could by ringing garrisons with fortified blockhouses and wire and relying on air power and tactics like cutting off the water supply to the rebellious city of Karbala—a practice pioneered during World War I in Najaf.

The 1920 rebellion forced the British to secure their own local proxies, just as the Sadrist rebellion against the ham-fisted political management of the Coalition Provisional Authority forced a hasty reassessment of the inclusion of Iraqi politicians in the management of their country. Arab levies were also employed by the British, a tactic the US finally arrived at in 2006 and 2007 as it looked for ways to use sectarian fighting to its advantage. The British also exploited sectarian divides, something the Shiites of Sadr City well remember; the Empire emplaced and empowered the minority Sunni tribes that would set the political tone of modern Iraq and oppress all who opposed them. This was the era the US had promised to end when they overthrew Saddam.

I remember visiting a father whose son had been shot in the back by American troops in the days before the Sadrist insurgency against the US had yet begun. But already his anger was laying the groundwork. With a raised first, he promised bloodshed. He cursed the soldier who shot his son, and he invoked his own father, who had fought in the revolution against the British. He promised it would be like 1920—and, in many ways, he was right. The US response to the uprisings in the western part of the country was to wall off neighborhoods in various cities, most notably Falluja. The Euphrates River city with a population of about 300,000 was leveled by air power and house-to-house fighting in 2004 and then encircled by barriers, with entry to the entire city controlled by the US until last year.

In January 2005, I met Sheik Ghaith al-Tamimi, who lived with his wife and two young sons in a tiny two-room apartment with no running water above a garage in Sadr City. Young and charismatic, Ghaith was the son of two doctors, but he had taken a different path, participating in the resistance against Saddam Hussein and going to jail twice in the 1990s for his efforts. After the invasion, he was free to organize, and did so.

I encountered Ghaith on the street in front of the Ministry of Oil, where members of the Jeish Al-Mehdi were holding a demonstration to protest the shortage of cooking and heating oils, as well as petrol. Sadr had agreed to a cease-fire, albeit a shaky one, in September of the previous year, and Ghaith told me he had at one point been forced to stand in front of an American tank to prevent some of the young men in his neighborhood from attacking it.

As the demonstrators, many holding empty oil lamps, prayed in the street in front of the ministry, a trio of Humvees pulled up on the other side of the median strip. The gunners on top of the Humvees trained their weapons on the crowd. As I snapped pictures, a pair of US soldiers got out of the lead Humvee. They walked directly toward me and took the camera out of my hands. Other soldiers, now out of the other two Humvees, trained their guns on the unarmed crowd. One was looking down the barrel of a shotgun, using it to scan the crowd, moving it back and forth. The troops motioned for me to follow them behind the Humvee, and when I did, the shouting grew. The troops looked through the pictures I’d taken and deleted the ones they didn’t like. The process was carried out wordlessly. They had taken me for an Iraqi journalist. Without protest, I took out my military-issued press pass and American driver’s license and handed them to one of the soldiers. With a hard look he read them, flipped them over, and raised his eyebrows. I nodded. He handed the IDs back along with my camera without a word.

The demonstrators were shouting louder, and Ghaith had begun to call for calm over the loudspeaker. “Irjairja! Get back—get back. Sayyed Moqtada has declared a cease-fire!” The troops got back in their Humvees and pulled away, the gunners on the top still swiveling their sights across the crowd.

A few months after the demonstration, Ghaith moved to an apartment outside Sadr City, where he and some other clerics had taken up residence. The apartment was on Palestine Street, a major thoroughfare bordered by nice, planned neighborhoods south of Sadr City. During this time I was able to piece together the story of his rise within the Sadrieen. The previous spring and summer had seen the first two Sadrist intifadas against the US military culminate when the Jeish al-Mehdi took over the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. I covered the fighting in Sadr City and Najaf, which left thousands dead and stopped only after the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the ranking cleric in the Shiite religious hierarchy. Ghaith had been present in Najaf and nearby Kufa when the fighting was taking place, and inside the shrine during the siege. When I asked him what his role had been, he smiled and pointed an imaginary rifle, making little popping noises. Those killed were mourned as martyrs, their faces added to the signs dotting the median strips in Sadr City that already held the faces of men martyred by Saddam during the Shiite uprising in 1991, immediately after the first Gulf War. Ghaith and the other men that led the fighting in Najaf became heroes.

After a deal was brokered, the militia melted away in Najaf but remained in control of Sadr City. The US, finally forced to take Sadr seriously, dropped a warrant it had issued for his arrest and redoubled overtures for him to join the political process. For me, the defining moment of that summer came when I happened to meet a US tank platoon that had been responsible for the destruction of the Sadr office in Sadr City in May 2004. The platoon bragged about reducing the office to rubble after fierce fighting. What I didn’t tell them was what I saw the day after their victory, when men and boys from the neighborhood gathered together and rebuilt it, larger than before.

By the time I met Ghaith, I already sensed the nature of Shiite resistance shifting. The previous intifadas had been popular uprisings, difficult to control. As the civil war intensified and people were being displaced by the thousands, the Mehdi began carrying out their own retaliatory attacks and cleansing. They were becoming better organized—and larger. Though sometimes rival factions inside the militia clashed violently, it was clear that anyone who opposed the Sadrieen would bear the brunt of the violence.

Very few members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the wealthy ruling Shiite party in the government that allied itself with the Americans, complained about the sectarian cleansing in Baghdad. If they were not excited to share power with the lower-class Sadrieen, they certainly didn’t mind letting the militia take on mutual enemies. If one considers that the Jeish al-Mehdi’s offensive was an important dynamic in driving many of Baghdad’s Sunnis into cooperating with the US military, it is arguable that the Jeish al-Mehdi has been, since 2004, the most powerful force in the Iraqi political landscape. But in 2005, how far the militia would spread across the city was only just being realized. As the casualties inflicted on Shiite civilians by Sunni extremists turned into a threat rivaling the occupation, refugee camps of Shiites cleansed from mixed areas of Baghdad, many of whom built shantytowns on the outskirts of Sadr City and other hardscrabble neighborhoods the Mehdi controlled, became recruitment centers for the militia. Cooperation between Sunni guerillas and the Jeish Al-Mehdi that had existed during 2004 during dual uprisings against the US military fully disintegrated.

“The Jeish Al-Mehdi does not have one leader,” said Nadher Yassin Mahmoud, a Sunni imam on Baghdad’s west side. Two of his friends, imams at other Sunni mosques, had already been killed. “My friend was an imam in Zafraniya—he had a very good relationship with the Jeish al-Mehdi. Some of them came to him and asked him to leave. They said, ‘We are your friends, and we do not want anything to happen to you.’ He asked why, and they just said, ‘We don’t want anything bad to happen to you.’ He left. Two days later the mosque was shot up.”

That Sunni members of the government were allied with the militias responsible for sectarian cleansing became a major complaint of the Shiite underclass. But as the violence mounted, Sadr approved the killing of Baathists and Takfiris—and those categories were being loosely interpreted by many of the militia’s commanders. The general feeling that all Sunnis were being targeted led some neighborhoods to form larger, more open militias of their own for protection. As the violence grew, distinctions Iraqis had once ignored became sharper. People who professed not to care about sectarian identity found themselves forced to choose sides.

Referring to the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni party with the most seats in the Iraqi government, Abu Ali al-Tamimi, the leader of the Mehdi for Baghdad at the time, said, “If they are good people, why don’t they condemn the killing of Shiites?”

As the guerilla war against the US and its allies became more violent, Sunni rebels attempted to create a ring of territory around Baghdad from which to operate, driving out Shiites and claiming they were collaborators with the US military. But in Iraq, where the confessional balance between approximately 20 million Arabs runs at a lopsided 60 percent Shiite, the retaliation, as displaced Shiites increasingly realized neither the government nor the US military was willing or able to protect them, was bound to be devastating.

After the February 2006 bombing of the revered Askariya Shrine in Samarra, a Shiite pilgrimage site in a restive city with a majority Sunni population an hour north of Baghdad, the Mehdi Army and other Shiite militias attacked more than a hundred Sunni mosques in Baghdad, killing hundreds and beginning a process that drove thousands from their homes.

Ghaith, I discovered, had taken over a mosque less than a block from the apartment he had rented on Palestine Street. The mosque had been taken from a Shiite cleric in 1980, during one of Saddam Hussein’s purges of politically active Shiite Islamists. He had court papers from a judge in Baghdad who had ruled in favor of the mosque’s former tenants, but the decision was never enforced by the Iraqi police. Given the opportunity, Ghaith had taken matters into his own hands. And while the Askariya bombing was provocation, plans for many of the attacks against the mosques had been made far in advance.

I didn’t see Ghaith again until a few months later when I visited him at the mosque. The building was surrounded by heavily armed guards, including uniformed policemen, and the streets leading to the mosque had been blocked off. It looked more like a forward operating base than a house of worship. Inside the mosque’s courtyard, though, I saw his children playing and a sprinkler watering the lawn.

Ghaith couldn’t keep from crowing about the work he and his men were doing for the neighborhood. “Yesterday an electrical line broke,” Ghaith said. “It might have taken weeks to get it fixed. But I called one of my friends in the Ministry of Electricity, and it was fixed the same day.”

He was on the frontline, and the city was “falling” again, this time to the Sadrieen.

“On the bus, people talk about the American soldiers losing the war,” he said. “Someone else must fight the terrorists.”

In February 2007, while I was in New York, I received a call from Ghaith’s mother. The US military had come to the mosque and arrested him and his brother. Ghaith’s mother cried and implored me to help. I told her there was nothing I could do. That Ghaith is a member of the Sadr Movement is enough for the US military to hold him indefinitely.

“Those who support Tayyera Sadri are young and they support using weapons,” Jenan al-Obaidi, a member of parliament with the SIIC, told me. “Of course, there are older and more educated people in the Sadr movement who believe in using weapons. But they saw what happened when they tried to fight.” Al-Obaidi and other SIIC members denied the government was using the military for political purposes. “We are prosecuting the outlaws even if they are in the mosques,” he said.

Since he was arrested, I have been to Ghaith’s house twice. I have seen his young son who suffered a shrapnel injury to his head when the mosque was attacked by gunmen later in 2007, I have seen the grass in the courtyard turn brown, and I have seen the entrance to the mosque padlocked.

North of the Sadr City wall, the area is patrolled by Iraqi soldiers from the 11th Division, the only division said to be operating “autonomously”—that is, without direct US support. One of the buildings they have occupied is a former youth center a few blocks from where Friday prayers take place, still bearing above the gate a portrait of Sadr’s father ringed by Technicolor flowers. For many worshipers, the presence of the army at Friday prayers, the same place the militia first rallied in 2003, conjures memories of the previous government. They are well aware that the Iraqi military has shut down many of the Sadrists’ mosques and arrested hundreds in parts of southern Iraq, and they are increasingly suspicious that similar efforts are afoot here.

On this particular day, before Friday prayers, worshipers used chains and trucks to pull down two of the twelve-foot-tall T-barriers, which broke apart as they hit the ground, exposing rebar skeletons. The Iraqi Army had parked a Humvee next to the gap. Representatives from the Sadr office had to link arms to hold back young men at prayers from confronting the army.

On the Iraqi officer’s desk sat a miniature T-wall, a model of the blast barriers that have gone up all over the city.

There was fresh resentment over the establishment of a small firebase constructed in the neighborhood, across the street from the Tayyera Sadrieen headquarters. The party’s representatives call the base a violation of the cease-fire agreement. On the outside wall of the base, someone had plastered a poster of Sadr. The word “NO” was printed in red letters in front of the black-cloaked, black-turbaned leader, who lifted his finger, as if making a point. He looked serious. The young men shared his expression.

In order to send a message, the Iraqi military had placed snipers on surrounding rooftops. They banned the presence of al-Sharqiya, a Baghdad-based satellite station deemed sympathetic to Saddam’s government and hostile to the current administration, and discouraged other journalists from attending. At prayers, an imam who fled southern Iraq implored his followers not to be cowed and warned the army, “If one preacher is taken, a dozen others will come.”

“They banned prayers in Amara and Diwaniya and now they want to ban them here?” another preacher asked, speaking from a podium in front of a ten-foot-tall picture of Sadr’s father. “If they are here to kill us, then we welcome martyrdom … Is Democracy over? Has Freedom finished? Have their empty slogans expired? The elections are about to take place, and this is all to prevent the Sadrieen from participating. They want to dismantle and shut down the Friday prayers so that we cannot take part.” After prayers, men demonstrated, shouting epithets at the Iraqi military, waving Iraqi flags and reciting poetry.

Later, when I arrived at the firebase, some of the men in the Iraqi military unit recognized me from Friday prayers and chided me for going, emphasizing the danger.

After helping the Iraqi soldiers connect a digital projector to a laptop (both donated by the Americans), I sat through a PowerPoint briefing in preparation for a cordon-and-search operation that would begin before daylight. On the Iraqi officer’s desk sat a miniature T-wall, a model of the blast barriers that have gone up all over the city. The trinket was boldly inscribed with the patches of the US unit that presented it to the commander, as well as the words “OIF 2008.” Operation Iraqi Freedom. A tacit, unironic endorsement of the larger strategy: segregation for peace.

I followed the troops out into the streets as they searched houses, detaining a dozen men and collecting nearly fifty light weapons, mostly AK-47s and a handful of World War II vintage automatic rifles.

“A lot of gangsters and militias controlled the neighborhood and the poor people,” their commander Colonel Nadum Khadim told me. “The law was imposed. The army came in … If you ask me if the Mehdi army will come back—I don’t think so.”

Hundreds of men bow, at prayer, touching their heads to the rugs beneath them. They are outside.
Iraqis attend Friday prayers in the streets of Sadr City (Karim Kadim / AP Images).

Saleh al-Obaidi, the Sadrieen’s official spokesman, wore a light grey dishdasha rather than his cleric’s robes. Many of the group’s officials were moving undercover now. I had arranged to meet al-Obaidi at the Sadr office in Khadhmiya, but when I arrived at the checkpoint to enter the neighborhood, the Iraqi police insisted that there was no longer a Sadr office in Khadhmiya. A few minutes later, al-Obaidi called and gave us directions for an alternate location. For all the intrigue, all the cloak-and-dagger, al-Obaidi was surprisingly frank in describing the continued necessity of the Sadr movement.

“The US sent more troops to Iraq,” he said. “We were in need of a popular style of opposition. Now the situation has developed. The Americans have started to think of reduction of their troops. They have started to think of longtime bases in Iraq, big bases in Iraq, and to pull out of Iraqi cities. They have started to change their thinking, and we have to change our thinking. We have made the decision to freeze Jeish al-Mehdi, but still, as long as there are occupying troops, we have to keep some people working for opposition.” He was not angry, just matter-of-fact. “We hope that negotiations between the Iraqi government and the American government will reach to a timetable and we will not be in need of these groups. We are not anti-American, we are not anti-British, but at the same time, we want the liberation of our country.”

Al-Obaidi accused the SIIC of using the cover of law to disenfranchise the Sadrieen ahead of January’s provincial elections. SIIC is widely accused of fraud in the 2005 parliamentary elections, though the Sadrieen still won the most seats in the largely impotent Iraqi parliament and control of some governorates that would later be wrested away by force. The Sadrist parliamentary bloc has staged a number of walkouts, primarily over the Iraqi government’s refusal to demand a timetable for a complete US withdrawal. The Sadrieen have seen their cabinet ministers purged from their posts, accused of misusing government funds and weapons. Meanwhile, SIIC and virtually every other Iraqi party stands accused of the same: simultaneously operating military and political wings. SIIC has been successful, however, in legitimizing its militia’s presence by “integrating” it into the Iraqi military, special police forces, and death squad units, all with the training and backing of the US.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has begun demanding, for the first time, that the US military agree to a complete withdrawal and a date for it—the first time since the occupation began that a nominal Iraqi head of state has done so. Whether he is sincere or simply trying to placate Sadr’s base is questionable, but it is a sign of the political winds in Iraq, where most people have seen a drop in their standard of living since the US invasion and most of the more than four million that have been displaced from their homes to other areas of the country or neighboring countries are unlikely to return to their homes any time soon. It is also not the first time al-Maliki has acknowledged the power of the Sadr movement or the widespread popularity of their demands; in 2005, before he became prime minister, he led a coalition of members of the Iraqi parliament in calling for a timetable for withdrawal.

“They are afraid that during the coming elections, they will not have the same results as in the last elections. During the last elections, Iraqis did not understand the importance of local councils. Now they do, and they do not want the local councils dominated by certain political parties,” al-Obaidi said, referring to SIIC.

Al-Obaidi also addressed the issue of the Sadrieen’s links to Iran with surprising candor, an issue he had always been cagey about before.

“We have the right to cooperate with anyone who can help us here and there, including the Iranians. But we are not the followers of the Iranian decision,” he said. “Our agenda is working against the occupation.” He added that SIIC has close ties to Iran as well, having been founded in Tehran by exiled Iraqis, and its militia, the Badr Brigades, was trained by the Iranians for use against Saddam in the war between the two countries in the 1980s. But while Iran is a regional player willing to exploit any preexisting local tensions, it does not create them.

I was reminded of an interview I had conducted with Hezbollah fighters in South Lebanon in 2006. I asked about the support the group received from Iran and accusations by its detractors that it would wither without it. “Look around you,” one man told me, standing in the street of a village that had been destroyed by Israeli tanks and shellfire. The Israeli military had begun bulldozing houses as it moved northward through the village. The smell of bodies under the rubble was at times overpowering. People walked about, surveying the damage, some apparently in shock. “Do you see any dead Iranians here?” the man asked rhetorically.

There are no dead Iranians to be found in Sadr City either.

American soldiers man a checkpoint, at an opening in a long concrete barrier.
A US soldier secures a checkpoint at the wall surrounding Sadr City (Petros Giannakouris / AP Images).

Abu Zeinab is a journalist who lives and works in Sadr City. He refuses to be photographed or appear on camera, fearing reprisals from the Iraqi government and military.

“During the days of Saddam there was oppression, suffering, and misery—and they still exist,” he said, sitting in an open air café in the middle of one of the district’s markets. “If we get one minister or one member of parliament, it doesn’t mean that our political situation has changed for the neighborhood. The poor are still very poor—and even worse than before—but now they are below the poverty line.”

It was midday and the café was largely empty, save for a few young men smoking water pipes and watching a European soccer match on the satellite TV. The couches were threadbare and saggy.

“From the beginning when the city was founded, it was called Revolution City. And it truly was a revolution against poverty—a revolution against despotism. Whether it was the domination during Saddam days or the domination of the occupier today, our response is the same—everyone refuses the occupation.”

“The rich Shia live in Karrada,” Abu Zeinab said, referring to a neighborhood in central Baghdad where many government figures have taken up residence, some in houses that formerly belonged to Hussein’s deputies. “We are the underclass here in the east. Of course, their goal is to curb our freedom, to control our movement. To diminish our humanity in the neighborhood and instill fear in us again. They aim to keep us haunted with fear—to dominate us and force us into submission. To turn this all into a prison.”

Without question, the Jeish al-Mehdi is weaker now than at any moment since its rise, shortly after the invasion. Though Sadr City still remains under Mehdi surveillance, the office of Tayyera Sadrieen is now emptier than I have ever seen it. From 2003 to 2008, it had been a place people came to offer support or seek assistance; to sit in its lobby and observe the foot traffic was to understand how Sadr City operated. But during multiple visits last July, I encountered only one other visitor—a woman from the neighborhood who came in complaining that her new neighbors were prostitutes. She pleaded with the men in the office to do something about it.

“Go ask the army,” the men in the office told her. “We’re civilians now.”

In most of Baghdad’s other neighborhoods, it is clear that the militia is not missed, and that if walling in Sadr City is what had to be done, then so be it.

People are drinking again in public in Baghdad for the first time since 2003; at a newly opened nightclub only ten minutes’ drive from Sadr City, the owner smiled broadly. “No more Jeish al-Mehdi,” he said. When I asked if all this was really attributable to the containment wall, one of my friends chimed in, smiling now too, “It is like zoo.”

On the other side of the wall, however, the shop owners of Sadr City are not so happy. “Your business dies because of these stones,” one shop owner told me. We were standing on the eastern edge of the Sadr City, near where another wall had been built, running almost the entire length of the district.

“The Americans … the Americans … This is their plan, not Iraqis. They directed the Iraqi government to do this—to hurt Sadr City and especially the Sadr movement. The neighborhood is already suffocating. And they put these stones to suffocate it more?” As we talked, an old woman squeezed through an opening in the barrier just large enough for a single person. After her came another, a man carrying a canister of cooking gas who tossed his purchase over the wall to a helpful bystander before squeezing through the crack and continuing on his way.

“Is this Iraq?” the shop owner asked. 

David Enders traveled to Iraq with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. For more information on Enders’ reporting from Iraq, visit the Pulitzer Center’s website.


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