Shia suburb begins its revolution


Lara Marlowe spoke to some of the poorest people in Baghdad and listened to their hopes and plans for the future

Two men armed with Kalashnikovs stopped my battered orange-and-white taxi in front of the al-Qadissiyah Hospital. They were bearded, unsmiling and wore grimy sports clothes, like thousands of looters I've watched across Baghdad since it was "liberated" by US forces on April 9th.

The gunmen checked the boot and the driver's papers, then let us continue deeper into the sprawling Shia slums, where goats feed on piles of burning rubbish and broken sewage pipes flood the streets.

Some of the looted goods from central Baghdad are displayed on balconies. Stolen buses are parked in front of shacks, down dirty alleys. But Saddam City is the only part of the capital that seems almost normal. The market was filled with people. There was food in the stalls, and women and children walked around, looking happy.

I found dozens more gunmen in the courtyard of the Imam al Sajad Mosque, gravitating around Sheikh Arif Jassem Ali al-Saadi. The grounds of the mosque looked like a junkyard, with plundered goods sorted by type. There were stacks of dental equipment, still in cardboard boxes, air-conditioners, tyres, 50 kg sacks of sugar, sofas, chairs, refrigerators.

The gunmen pulled up four looted chairs so that Sheikh Arif and his visitors could sit down in the midst of the hot, dusty compound. "I am collecting all the looted goods here, for safe-keeping, for distribution to the people," the Shia cleric said. "It was not theft," he insisted. "The government prevented people from having these things; they deprived us."

Until the Americans arrived last Wednesday, Sheikh Arif said, they were like people in prison. "Now we've been set free. When the looters - the people you see now - were filmed by the television cameras, I asked them to bring things here, and after the situation settles down they will obey the new government."

Then he added doubtfully: "Will the Americans set up a system? Will they stop the chaos?"

The sheikh, a young man with a white turban and dirty white robe, tugged at his beard. His followers crowded round, listening intently as they leaned on their Kalashnikovs, flies swarming on their sandal-shod feet. "We want security," the sheikh continued. "We are providing security ourselves."

The poor Shias of north Baghdad may be the terror of the rest of the city, but they too are afraid - of men they call the "Wahabis", after the fundamentalist Sunni sect which rules Saudi Arabia and inspired Osama bin Laden.

Saddam Hussein's regime claimed that it imported 6,000 "Arab volunteers" to stage suicide attacks against US forces. Now these Arabs are a convenient excuse for everything which is wrong in Baghdad. "It was the Arab fighters who did the looting," one of Sheikh Arif's colleagues, Sayyid Haitham, claimed against all the evidence. "They are the ones who attack hospitals and burn buildings. They are from Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Maghreb," Sheikh Arif replied when I asked who these "Wahabis" were. "They began to attack the Shia. We arrested four of them - from Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan - and we turned them over to the Americans." The sheikh and his followers ask very little of the US. "The Americans say they are against terrorism; so let them catch the Wahabis and go out of the country," he said.

A man squatting beside the sheikh held a leatherbound file instead of a Kalashnikov. He was better dressed than the others and identified himself only as an electrical engineer. "In 1920 and 1921, Iraqis fought the British," he said. That rebellion was led by Shias - not Sunnis. The Iraqi people don't want the Americans and British to stay here. We thank them for getting rid of Saddam, but we don't want them to stay here." Religious leaders now represent the only authority in these Shia slums, home to 40 per cent of Baghad's five million people. If the Iraqi policemen whom the Americans are attempting to rehabilitate went there, they would probably be torn to pieces.

The "people" had decided to change the name of north Baghdad from "Saddam City" to "Sadr City", Sheikh Arif explained, in honour of the Shia leader Mohamed Bakr al-Sadr and his nephew, Sadiq, both of whom were executed on orders from Saddam Hussein. But the sheikh - and most Baghdadis - still refer to the district by its pre-Saddam name of "ath-Thawra", which means revolution. I was witnessing Islamic revolution in Sadr City yesterday. The wall-painters were hard at work, blotting out the name "Saddam" from every wall and street sign, replacing it with "Sadr". On orders from the Shia clergy, they also daubed admonishments to looters: "Muslims, Islam and al-Sadr reject looters" and "Shame on people who steal".

By the time I finished talking to Sheikh Arif, there were nearly as many turbanned clerics as gunmen in the mosque compound. They wanted to show us their efforts to start building a new Iraq. A man named Said Ismail al-Jezairi sat behind two looted tables, next to the mosque's cement steps. "I'm the civil administrator," he announced proudly, and showed me the nascent bureaucracy of Sadr City: four children's school notebooks. There was one for people with knowledge of the electricity system, containing 16 names.

Baghdad has been without power since April 3rd and the Americans' failure to restore water and electricity is a grievance second only to the lack of security.

Mr al-Jezairi had filled one page of his notebook by recording the redistribution of looted goods.

The other two notebooks were rosters of vehicles and machines and the "security administration" - for which read gunmen. A man beckoned me from the window behind Mr al-Jezairi. "This is the pharmacy," he said. In the darkness, I could see stacks and stacks of medical supplies, looted from the city's main hospitals. The "pharmacist" showed me boxes of vitamin B injections, disposable needles, water-purification tablets, medicine to make blood coagulate and to stop convulsions. Much of it was spoiled, because it was supposed to be refrigerated. The illiterate Shias of Sadr City had no idea how to use the property they had "re-appropriated".

Later, outside the burning foreign ministry, looters sold a few litres of stolen petrol to my driver, at 80 times its normal price. All petrol stations are closed and people are willing to pay almost anything for it.

Back at the Palestine Hotel, a crowd of poor-looking people - recognisable as the denizens of ath-Thawra/Sadr City - staged an ambiguous demonstration in front of the US Marines' armour. Some media interpreted it as a plea for law and order, water and electricity. But they chanted "ath-Thawra for Baghdad" - revolution for Baghdad.

In the Sunni district of Karrada, I met a woman named Sundoz, queuing in front of the bakery. She dabbed tears from her eyes when I asked how she felt. "I hate America, I hate Saddam," she said. Before the war started, she studied interior design at the art college in Waziriya and her husband worked as a freelance engineer. They live alone with their 10-year-old son in a house in Abu Nawas Street, beside the Tigris river.

In Karrada, all but the main boulevards have been barricaded by residents to repel looters. Sundoz's husband has a gun, but she is terrified of the people from ath-Thawra/Sadr City, terrified of civil war. Of war between Shia and Sunni? I asked her. "No," she replied. "Between rich and poor." In other words: revolution.