Religion The curse of Saddam City
As long as the dictator was in power, Baghdad's Shiite quarter was the ghetto of the tortured. Now it is the breeding ground of a new power. The mullahs who provide order are attempting to expand their dominance to the entire city. By Alexander Smoltczyk
They claim to have heard voices from deep within the earth. There is talk of prisoners who have been kept captive for years in underground dungeons, and have now been abandoned by their guards. "You can hear them calling out," says one resident. Another man who, ever since the war ended, has spent his days searching for a lost brother in Baghdad's bombed-out police districts, says "they are still there."
And yet another, Mohammed Fuad, an employee of Adnan Hospital, swears one of the corpses he and his colleagues had unearthed the day before on Yafa Street was still alive. "Suddenly he began to move," says Fuad matter-of-factly.
Two weeks after the statue of Saddam was toppled, the city of Baghdad seems to have quieted down. Garbage trucks are back in business and children perch on the "Abrams" tanks of the victors. But this is merely a surface. Nothing has been resolved beneath it. Beneath it there is fear. There are voices and there are reports of hidden bunkers and tunnels deep underground, where the tyrant is said to be in hiding, waiting for his hour to return.
Behind the Alsaa Restaurant in the wealthy district of Mansur, the earth is torn open to a depth of between thirty and forty feet; a pharynx of bricks, bent beams, splintered shelves. This was the site of an attack by four US bunker-blaster bombs on April 9th. Saddam's motorcade had been spotted in the street shortly before the attack.
People stand around this crater all day long. The air reeks of decay, but bystanders say this is just the restaurant's chickens. Not the dictator. Nevertheless, the crater has become a pilgrimage site. A plump woman wrapped in an embroidered robe is there with her young sons and three cousins. As soon as she spots foreigners, she begins to scream: "Saddam is coming back, believe me, and then he will punish all traitors!"
None of the bystanders says anything. "He lives in a bunker! He sent a message through Al Jazeera!," screeches the woman, weeping and hyperventilating. She says Saddam is her beloved leader, and that her sons are named after Saddam's sons, Kusai and Udai.
"We were the masters under Saddam, and we will remain masters." She says her name is Asna Abess, and that we can go ahead and print what she has to say: "I am prepared to kill an American. If I didn't have my sons .Come, Udai," says the woman, pulling her pale, silent boy, clad in shorts, behind her. A child with the name of a killer.
The fear did not disappear when the Americans entered the city. Liberation? There was no celebration, only destruction and looting. The bombs were precise, but the looting that followed was random. It is said that Kuwaitis infiltrated the country and started the looting, as revenge for the sacking of their country in 1990. It is also said that the Americans deliberately provoked the looting in an effort to completely destroy Baghdad. Residents of the city search for explanations, if only to drown out one thing: their dismay with themselves.
They are also dismayed with that part of their society they had always excluded, the part that had been exiled to the northeast corner of the city. This is the area where most of the looters came from, "Saddam City," that other section of Baghdad where all those live whose reckless fury is truly justified.
The road to Saddam City initially passes the completely intact and well-guarded oil ministry, then the completely torched ministry of education, followed by the martyrs' monument, a sewage treatment plant, a desolate industrial zone, a power station, and a traffic circle where dirty children wash cars for a few dinars.
In the late 1950s, then Iraqi dictator Abd al-Karim Kassim distributed this land among the poor who had come from the predominantly Shiite south, where they had lived in miserable corrugated metal huts. Each family received about 2,000 square feet of land and a construction loan. The district was named "City of the Revolution." Today, its residents curse Abd al-Karim Kassim for having built their city.
In later years, Saddam Hussein paid a visit to this decaying area in northeast Baghdad and promised that things would improve. He needed the desperate poor of the "City of the Revolution," so that he could send them back to the south, but this time to the battlefields of the war with Iran. Saddam ordered a sewage system built and the roads paved with asphalt. The people celebrated and renamed their city "Saddam City," perhaps in the hope of not being forgotten again. Or perhaps not: No one in the Arab world is particularly surprised when a strong man takes advantage of the weak. And once a leader's wishes have been committed to paper, asylum and escape are no longer an option.
Now that the war has ended, Saddam City is the only section of Baghdad in which the images of Saddam have been painted over and completely obliterated. Walls at the entrance to this section of town bear such slogans as "Welcome to Sadr City!" and "Accept no stolen money!" Next to these slogans is the likeness of a white-bearded, bespectacled elderly man: Mohammed Sadik al-Sadr, leader of the Shiites, respected scholar and beloved father of the faithful. He was murdered in February 1999.
Whether it is called "City of the Revolution," "Saddam City" or "Sadr City," it is filled with the same stinking open sewers surrounded by swarms of flies and mosquitoes. The same floppy-eared goats foraging through garbage, the same hordes of howling children. "We have no work, no water, no electricity. Write about that, mister!"
The curse on this area has not disappeared with the name. It is home to two million people living in miserable brick huts, waiting for life to begin. Waiting to finally receive their share of Iraq's subterranean riches.
The sanctions have transformed poverty into misery in this district. Saddam eventually lost interest in repairing its sewage system. Repression proved to be the most effective tool, and it was all that was necessary. The Shiites were prohibited from going about their Friday prayers in public, and from making the pilgrimage to Kerbela, to the martyrs' festival of the Imam Hussein. The rule of silence prevailed.
Now it is the walls that speak. Slogans like "Sunni - Shia, one Islam!" are painted everywhere. The newly formed Islamist party IDP has opened an office. The streets are filled with groups of young men carrying the image of Imam Hussein and plastic bags, pilgrims walking to Kerbela.
At the "Kurdish Bazaar," the spoils of the past few days of looting are displayed among cucumbers and tomatoes. Children hold up blank passports, military papers and registration stamps, license plates and bundles of cash. Air conditioners, street lights and fans stolen from the ministries lie in the dust. A Kalashnikov goes for 30 dollars, and the ammunition is free.
Shots can be heard from time to time. The Americans call it "Ali Baba fire." They do it to deter thieves. And to overcome their own fears.
On April 9th, when the looting began in Baghdad, the first buildings to be reduced to ash and rubble were police stations and administrative buildings. But no one laid a hand on the shops and mosques. Saddam City is the only part of Baghdad in which the hospitals were not looted.
"I stood in front of the entrance and said: If you come into this building, I will leave and will never return," says Mowafak Gorea, physician-in-chief of the central hospital. Only after having been asked several times does the interpreter provide a translation of the hospital's official name: "General Saddam Hospital."
Gorea is a man with thinning hair, unobtrusive to the point of invisibility: "Then they left again. Every half hour, I walked through the hospital with a whistle, searching for looters. We kept on operating. First it was the bombing victims, and then the gunshot and burn wounds from the street fighting."
His office is decorated with a child's globe and a bunch of plastic flowers. A mullah is also sitting in the room. Gorea does not seem to feel that this requires any explanation.
He himself is a Christian. "Probably the only one in Saddam City," he says. He spent the entire war in his 300-bed hospital, 25 days in a row. "We treated thousands of the wounded on an inpatient basis during the last week of the war." In one room, there are still ten corpses. No one has ever inquired about them. Gorea will photograph them, take fingerprints, and bury them.
"The holy men," says the doctor, turned slightly toward the mullah, "sent us armed guards." The cleric smiles. "We are still the only fully-functioning general hospital in Baghdad. We have two months' worth of supplies and medications. I have two power generators, and at night the only light in Saddam City shines from the windows of this hospital. Friendly hands," he says, again motioning toward the mullah, "provide us with financial support. We do not need help from other countries."
"Steal no money! Go to the mosques! Return to work! Do not shoot without cause!"
Gorea's first encounter with the liberating troops consisted in an American tank breaking down the hospital's main gate.
There are said to be 120 mosques in Saddam City. For the past 30 years, the faithful have prayed, awaiting the return of the hidden 13th imam. Now that the police stations and government offices are in ruins, authority rests entirely in the hands of the mullahs.
On the central square, they have raised a sheet on which, in red letters, the fatwa of the Imam of Najaf proclaims: "Steal no money! Do not shoot without cause! Go to the mosques and pray! Return to work! "
On every street corner, they have stationed young men wearing t-shirts and brandishing Kalashnikovs. Occasionally they stop cars and inspect the trunks. Occasionally they shoot into the air.
At the gate of the grand mosque, the al-Hikma, or "Mosque of Wisdom," hangs a hand-written note: "Obey the representatives of Sadr and pay the Zakat," the Islamic tax. A line of children, each carrying a melon-sized refrigerator motor on his shoulders, jostles its way through the entrance.
Ever since a call to return looted goods was issued from the minaret of the al-Hikma, the courtyard has become a warehouse of sorts. Stacks of car tires, disassembled wall units, doors in their original packaging litter the ground. Sacks of Brazilian sugar, stored in mess halls at the other end of the city just a few days earlier, are dragged into the prayer hall.
And with each sack, each bundle, the power of the "Mosque of Wisdom" grows, as does that of its leader, Mohammed al-Fartussi, the new master of Saddam/Sadr City.
The 35-year-old sheik is a good-looking man sporting a beard and wearing a pressed caftan. Next to him sits a young woman, everything but her forehead covered, holding a microphone in her hand. She says she is a reporter with "US News." "Why do you dress like this?", asks al-Fartussi. "Is this what you wear at home?"
He wearily scribbles something onto a piece of paper and gives it to an advisor sitting next to him. Sheik Fartussi is a representative of the powerful Hawza Theological Seminar in the holy city of Najaf. He is responsible for the Shiites on the eastern bank of the Tigris. He was the man who led the first Friday prayers, attended by 20,000 of the faithful in front of the Hikma mosque. The two or three million Shiites in Saddam City would obey him, if necessary. He is a powerful man. Probably more powerful than he himself knows.
"We do not need the USA," he begins. "The Iraqi people know how to use weapons. Saddam's wars taught us that." His advisor whispers something into his ear. "We do not need power. All we want is our freedom."
Fartussi is a student of Mohammed Sadik al-Sadr, the man for whom the city of the poor is now named. The Sadrs are a well-known family of theologians. In Iraq, their fame led to Mohammed Sadik's uncle being murdered in 1980 by the Baathists and his corpse dragged behind a tractor through the streets of Najaf. Mohammed Sadik himself was murdered in 1999, together with two of his sons, after he dared to criticize Saddam during Friday prayers. Today, his followers look to his third son as their leader. The murdered imam was no Khomeini, no spokesman for a political Islam. In fact, some Shiites felt that Sadr was too timid, accusing him of restricting his activities to within the walls of the mosque.
His death lead to an uprising in all Shiite regions, as well as in Saddam City. It was crushed by the Republican Guard. There are still bullet holes in the walls of some mosques.
Naturally, Sheik Fartussi is prepared to be asked about the Sharia: "We wish to obey Islamic law in our community. Not in the state." He refuses to address any other questions on the issue of a form of government.
"We secure rights for the minorities. For Christians and for Kurds. Even for Jews." This is not the sheik's first interview. "We even treated the Wahhabite terrorists well when we took them into custody." Fartussi writes a note onto a piece of paper and stands up: "Go and see for yourself."
During the last few days of the war, a few dozen fedajin who had been smuggled into the country from Syria, Palestine and Lebanon apparently attacked the mosques and hospitals in Saddam City, even shooting at clerics. During the 19th century, the followers of Wahhab devastated the Shiite cities of Najaf and Kerbela. And now, according to rumors, they have been terrorizing the inhabitants of Saddam City to prevent them from greeting the Americans with open arms.
Saddam City is the only section of Baghdad in which the hospitals were not looted.
The mosque known as "The Master of Youth in Paradise" is being used as a prison for these terrorist who infiltrated Iraq and were subsequently arrested. It is a sparsely decorated building, with a relatively new generator droning next to it. An occasional gunshot can be heard coming from the surrounding rooftops. The photograph of the white-bearded imam, Sadr, hangs on the wall, while a toothless, unshaven man with a fresh scar on his temple squats in a corner. He is the prisoner. The "Wahhabite terrorist." He pulls out a "Sumer King Size" and begins to smoke.
He says his name is Samir Allahwi, and that he is a 31-year-old truck driver from Lebanon. "We came to fight the coalition." Why? "Because they did not want freedom for Iraq." What do he and the freedom of Iraq have in common? "I would have received 600 dollars for each operation."
He says he entered the country through Syria and was housed, together with 450 other fedajin, in one of three mosques in Ramadi, west of Baghdad. His guard reads from a notebook containing the prisoners' statements: "They had a Syrian mullah with them, Mohammed Ilektron, who was part of Osama bin Laden's group." According to the guard, they should have been prepared for suicide attacks against Shiites. "We arrested 19 terrorists. Some are dead, and the others were turned over to the Americans."
The trickle of gunshots outside has become more intense. Shots are now coming from every rooftop. "They are happy," says the guard. "Perhaps the electricity has returned."
The imprisoned terrorist returns to the courtyard. The door to the street is open, but he doesn't leave.
A man who stands guard over the prisoners and introduces himself as Sheik Abd al-Sahra, offers a drink of water and an office chair stolen from some government agency. The men surrounding us murmur quietly, but clearly: " Down, down, USA! Down, down, USA!"
The fact that his visitors are from Germany doesn't improve the situation. On the contrary: "Get out! Leave! Germany supported Saddam. Get out of here! I know all about the game that's being played here. I saw the demonstration on television."
The sheik is beside himself with rage. Based on the fragments of his tirade the interpreter is able to translate, it appears that he was tortured: "I saw what it said on the electroshock device: made in Germany. I was able to see it before they shoved it into me from behind."
Like many others, the tortured sheik has spent the past few days looting the offices of the security services. These offices were bombed repeatedly, and mountains of file cards, records and court rulings were to be found lying among the ruins. There were papers bearing the official state seal, and stapled to them were passport photos of young women and men, some smiling, some looking more serious. Sheik Abd al-Sahra stood among the piles of paper and searched the drawers of looted file cabinets. He was collecting the dead.
In the execution records, he found names of people he had known and of others from his neighborhood. They filled flour sacks with the papers and took them to the mosque in Saddam City. Now lists of names have been posted in the courtyard, so that anyone can see if his or her father, sister or son is among the dead.
Sahra found his father. He shows us a dossier and an identification card: "Here: Death by hanging. Together with ten others. Order dated April 28, 1997. That is Saddam's birthday. That's how he celebrated."
His father was a member of the Shiite party "The Call," which was mercilessly persecuted by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf war. "All of you in the West were silent," says Sahra, who has regained his composure and invited his visitors to follow him into an interior room.
"Believe me when I say we are happy," he says. "We welcome George Bush and Tony Blair." And the tirades of just a few minutes ago? "For you. The men believe that you journalists like to hear such speeches."
On the next day, no one will speak to us in the mosques of Saddam City. The gates are shut, and there are more guards. We are told that the sheik was arrested. Apparently the Americans locked up Fartussi and his advisors. They were on their way to the martyrs' festival of Imam Hussein in Kerbela. The leader of Saddam City, of all people, placed in chains by the infidels!
A gravel truck filled with shouting young men barrels past. They are carrying green and black flags, green for Islam, black for the martyr Hussein. They shout: "To Fardos Square!" It is Baghdad's central square, the square where the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled.
"I saw what it said on the electroshock device that they shoved into me from behind: made in Germany."
For the second time since the war ended, the people of Saddam City are marching into Baghdad. The downtrodden are going to the place where they expect to find power and wealth. And with the same fury. But this time it is not to loot, but to protest. Even if no one is exactly sure what it is they are protesting. It just has to be loud and in English, if at all possible. One banner reads: "We asking for realease our pressoners at once." It is the message that is important, not the spelling.
A few thousand men march down Abu Nuwas Street, led by turbaned mullahs. At times, the spectacle does not seem to be any less unsettling to the residents of the inner city, the Sunnis, the Baathists, the Christians. Here they are again, the suburbs, the angry mob. People standing in their doorways keep an eye out for weapons in the crowd.
The news of Fartussi's arrest will later prove to have been a rumor. But is this important? The march of the Shiite poor is merely a dress rehearsal for a play that could be titled "The New Iraq," a play still being written.
They march past two US tanks. The words "Ruff Ryder II" are printed on one tank, and "Camel Tow" on the other. Finally, they arrive at the place they believe to be the center of power and attention in the new Baghdad: the shopping mall of the Palestine Hotel. This is where there are cameras, TV vans and tents that have been set up by the television stations.
"Down, down, USA!", they shout into the cameras, most of which are shut off. "Down, down, Israel!, they shout, shaking their fists. And: "Yes, yes, state Islam!" If the GIs standing behind barbed wire were a little older than 20 or 25, this would be a familiar scene to them. These are the same mobs that gathered in front of the US embassy in Teheran in 1979. Then the crowd was made up of tens of thousands of Iranian Shiites. Today it consists of a few thousand Iraqi Shiites from Saddam City, and they are presumably just as oblivious to the consequences of what they are saying.
Someone shouts into a megaphone: "Release al-Fartussi! Wailla " That means: "or else." What will they threaten? "Wailla ," the demonstrators shout. And again, a voice shouts from the megaphone: "Release al-Fartussi, or else " And then a third time: "Wailla. Or else " Or else? No one knows how to complete the sentence.