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Mission 16 - Detail
Sadr City

Sadr City, Iraq - May 22, 2004:
In the brutal battlefields of Sadr City, the Mahdi army has 48 hours of ambushes and bloodshed in store for US forces.
"The cleric, al-Sadr, preaches the US is but the new Saddam."

It is perhaps the most fertile ground for hostilities in all of Iraq. Sadr City is a place where a young cleric calls upon hundreds of thousands of followers to "terrorize your enemy," meaning the United States, and soldiers are greeted with banners that say, "Welcome" to a "second Vietnam." Men signing up for the Mahdi army attempt to sacrifice their sons for Islam, even though they are only five years old, and rebels too poor to own weapons join the fight anyway at the sound of gunfire, perfectly willing to become martyrs themselves. Sadr City is a hostile landscape and has been for decades, ripped apart by wars with Iran and Saddam Hussein. Its residents are impoverished and starving, both for food and revolution.

Sadr City was created for destitute Shiites who had nothing but their pride and the dream of independence and, forty years later, the residents of Sadr City still have nothing to lose. Unsanitary, unstable and unfriendly, the city is loaded with criminals. Most residents are perpetually unemployed. There are no police, no public utilities worth a damn, and no social structure other than the rules of religion, which are warped by their worshipped cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Though al-Sadr’s army have been slowly retreating in other regions, the support and longevity of the fighters in Sadr City is unparalleled. Unemployed men line the streets to join the Mahdi army, perhaps because there is no other purpose left. Saddam kept a tight rein on the city, keeping the Shiites in squalor and murdering anyone who spoke out against his leadership. Sadr City slipped into an unrecoverable social decline. Because Saddam was so ruthless, the Shiites couldn’t fight back. Today, the residents are acutely aware anyone from the outside could take over the chokehold of powerlessness and poverty Saddam held the city in for decades.

The cleric, al-Sadr, preaches the US is but the new Saddam. The time has come for Sadr City’s independence, and the days of compliance are over. It is a message al-Sadr’s father preached years ago. For his efforts, it is Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr that Sadr City is named for. The poor flocked to al-Sadr, much like they do his son today. But Muhammed Sadiq was a pioneer for demanding the clergy step up against social inequality. And he was brazen. Muhammed Sadiq would publicly question Saddam’s unjust policies toward the poor and the falsely imprisoned. He would lead his followers to chant about "Satan, the unjust one," and everyone knew he was talking about Saddam, including Saddam. Following his routine Friday prayers on a day in 1999, Muhammed Sadiq al-Sadr was assassinated.

Within a year of the murder, 4,000 Shiite families were expelled from Baghdad for committing crimes in the name of al-Sadr such as "discrediting" President Hussein for implying his role in the murder or organizing demonstrations of mourning. His cause was noble; he was a fighter for the victims, for the majority of people with the minority of resources. His son, Muqtada al-Sadr, has a different agenda.

The young al-Sadr has capitalized on the dim outlook for the people of Sadr City. Through his inheritance of a network of mosques, soup kitchens and informal courts, al-Sadr lures volunteers for his Mahdi army from a mixed bag of former butchers, farmers and students desperately seeking a purpose. Creating hostilities by liking the US presence to Saddam’s wrath of terror, al-Sadr fuels a fierce determination in his followers with widespread propaganda regarding the powerlessness of US troops and, conversely, the might of the Sadr militia. A senior al-Sadr aide reports the US are occupiers who "kill Iraqis, rape our women and steal our riches." Revisionist stories from the rebel camp include the destruction of US tanks, the remnants of which are "sucked up" by a huge machine in a coalition cover-up.

The truth is that al-Sadr has created a condition where innocent bystanders are regular victims of stray bullets and residents suspected of aiding US forces are murdered. In the 30 days preceding this mission, seven Iraqis, including the Sadr City chairman of the council, were executed. Each body was recovered from its public hanging spot; all were accompanied by a sign labeling the dead man as an American spy.

For the US, the safety and comfort of Sadr City’s residents has been difficult to maintain. The Army negotiated a failed cease-fire with tribal sheiks, and a weapons buyback program that cost the US $1.3 million. In an ongoing effort to both beautify Sadr City and employ its residents, the US provided Sadr City with 70 trash trucks and numerous dumpsters, but Iraqi contractors took the trucks and attempted to extort money from the residents to remove the trash. When that didn’t work, the trucks were used for profitable jobs elsewhere and looters destroyed the dumpsters for scrap metal.

Other contractors were hired to clear the sewer lines. Overloaded and seeping black pools of sludge into the streets, the US’s arrangements to rectify the situation were in vain. Corrupt sewer contractors demanded payment for the free service and the job never got done. The system was originally built for 720,000 people; Sadr City has swelled to 2.5 million and the sewer lines haven’t been cleaned since 1996. It’s indicative of the shocking squalor al-Sadr residents live in, and the enormity of transforming a ghetto into a true city of revolution.


Sadr City

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