Baghdad neighborhood falls to clerical rule in post-Saddam void
April 15, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A Baghdad district that is home to 2 million Shiite Muslims has practically seceded from the rest of Iraq. Led by local clerics, Saddam City now runs its own police force, hospitals, clinics and food distribution centers.
Saddam City’s autonomy, won in the power vacuum left by the fall of Iraq’s government, doesn’t bode well for the future of this heterogeneous nation after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, whose rule held the disparate religious and ethnic groups together.
Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people and more than half of Baghdad’s 5 million residents. In a post-Saddam Iraq, Shiite leaders say they want a share of power that reflects their numbers, something that would end the traditional monopoly over political power by Arabs from Islam’s mainstream Sunni sect.
A show of Shiite power, like that in Saddam City, is likely to rile Sunnis, leading to tensions or violence. Additionally, for a part of Iraq to seek autonomy could produce a domino effect in a country whose very nationhood is somewhat fragile — it was once three separate Ottoman provinces and came to exist within its present borders less than a 100 years ago.
Besides the Shiites, who have a long history of restiveness, Iraq has a large Kurdish minority that tirelessly aspires for autonomy. The fault lines in Iraqi society also run along tribal and territorial lines.
Saddam, a Sunni Arab, has for years driven wedges between tribes to weaken them and fed Sunni-Shiite rivalry to consolidate his own power. Inter-Shiite differences, in which Saddam has played a part, occasionally boil over. Last week, for example, a mob in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf hacked to death a Shiite cleric who had returned from exile.
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In Saddam City, a young cleric ominously hinted Monday that handing back authority over the densely populated neighborhood to a central government may be less than certain.
Ali al-Gharawi, 22, also said that he and other Saddam City leaders take their orders from the “al-hawza al-ilmiyah,” the Arabic phrase for the top Shiite clerics of Najaf.
“I don’t think that any central government, if such a body is ever to take office, will offer comprehensive protection for us,” said Gharawi, in reply to a question on whether he and others would relinquish power in Saddam City when a new central government takes office.
Everything in Saddam City suggests power is firmly in the hands of the clerics and that the area’s mosques are functioning as the centers of power. There also are many telltale signs that a central, albeit concealed, power is in existence.
Al-Gharawi, underlining his newly found authority, said he met twice with a U.S. military commander deployed near Saddam City and from whom he won approval that neighborhood patrols could keep their light arms while on duty.
Raad Ahmed, a Shiite activist sentenced to death in 2002 but released by Saddam in a mass pardon last fall, said local gunmen have handed over to U.S. troops five Arab volunteers who came to Iraq to fight U.S. and British forces.
Notices, signs and graffiti in Saddam City also attest to a government-like authority.
“Electricity is the property of everyone, so protect it,” reads graffiti outside a power installation. “Dear brother: you can return the state’s looted money here,” reads a sign.
Activists say clinics and four hospitals in the area are now run by volunteers. Food forcibly confiscated along with other items from looters by patrols operating under clerical supervision is given to hospitals.
Al-Gharawi said thousands of armed volunteers enforce peace in the area from dusk to dawn, preventing anyone from leaving or entering Saddam City. On Monday afternoon, however, armed men manned checkpoints, searching vehicles and passengers. Other gunmen were deployed on the rooftop of the local telephone exchange and outside mosques.
Shiites, who have long complained of persecution under Saddam, manifested the dawn of a new era in the manner they worshipped at a holy shrine on Monday.
They openly wept over the “martyrdom” of Imam al-Hussein, one of their most revered saints, and venerated images of him. There was no sign of Saddam’s plainclothes policemen who routinely mingled with worshippers at Shiite shrines.
Black banners symbolizing the grief over al-Hussein’s death were hoisted over the walls in the shrine’s inner plaza. In words that would have been unthinkable less than a week ago, a sign announced: “Every day is Ashoura and every land is Karbala.”
Ashoura is the name given to the day on which al-Hussein was killed in battle in the 7th century and Karbala is a holy Shiite city southwest of Baghdad, where he is buried.
“All that Shiites want is to be closer to God,” Mohammed Ali, a noncommissioned officer who deserted his post a day before the U.S.-led war on Iraq began March 20, said as he squatted in the plaza.
“But we cannot rule out trouble from the Sunnis now that we have some freedom,” chipped in Salman Hashem, another worshipper at the Baghdad shrine.