In Baghdad’s Sadr City, clerical support underpins protests

Iraq Cleric's Supporters (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Iraq Cleric’s Supporters (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Khalil Ibrahim’s four sons are among thousands of supporters of an influential Shiite cleric staging a sit-in outside Iraq’s parliament after storming the building last week in a stunning move that plunged the country into a new era of political instability.

Ibrahim is behind them all the way, he says—as are virtually all of his neighbors in Sadr City, the vast Baghdad district of millions of mostly impoverished Shiites that is the heart of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s support.

Every house in the district’s concrete jungle has members participating in the sit-in, 70-year-old Ibrahim told The Associated Press on Thursday. “This time we know there will be change, we are sure of it,” he said.

Al-Sadr derives his political weight largely from their seemingly endless support. Words from the cleric have spurred carefully organized mass protests at various times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a standstill and disrupting the political process. Many in Sadr City profess their devotion to the cleric, rejecting allegations of corruption against his movement.

They are drawn by his religious rhetoric and the promise of long-sought change and recognition for a society that is among Iraq’s poorest.

Most people in Sadr City complain of inadequate basic services, including electricity in the scorching summer heat – temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday. The majority who spoke to AP did not finish school, and those who did said they cannot find work.

Spurred on by protest calls from al-Sadr’s party, they stormed parliament on Saturday, before retreating to a sit-in outside the building. Their rally prevents al-Sadr’s Iranian-backed political rivals from moving forward with government formation. Al-Sadr, whose party won the largest number of seats in the last election, had demanded a majority government that would have ousted those rivals.

The battle extends an unprecedented political stalemate 10 months since federal elections were held.

The cleric calls his followers to action by invoking a powerful combination of religion, particularly by invoking the sacrifices of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shia Islam. He also draws on Sadr City’s long history as an epicenter of mass social demonstration where feelings of oppression and revolution run deep.

This history dates back to the district’s founding shortly after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy by Abdel Karim Qassim.

Called Revolution City at the time, Qassim built settlements for migrants from southern Iraq, many of whom were violently dispossessed of their land and suffered extreme poverty. The five original sectors would grow over the following decades to 100 sectors with 2.5 million inhabitants.

Promises to develop the area were never realized throughout Iraq’s turbulent modern history.

With subsequent regime changes, the area fell into neglect and created an urban underclass segregated from the rest of Baghdad society. Under Saddam Hussein, the area became a center of Shiite resistance. After the US-led invasion in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City after al-Sadr’s father.

In a speech on Wednesday, al-Sadr instructed his supporters to continue the sit-in and called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and changes to the constitution.

In the Ibrahim household, the requirements are simpler. They want to own a house and find work. Ibrahim’s sons have only irregular day labor jobs. Ibrahim’s eldest son is 23, and none of his children passed primary school.

Everyone, a total of 12 people, lives in a house where the rent covers most of their income. This despite the fact that Ibrahim has worked all his life as a guard outside the Ministry of Education.

Hamida, Ibrahim’s wife, desperately wants to own a house of her own.

“We filled out applications for public housing, we filled out applications for jobs, but nothing worked,” she said.

Just then the power went out. “There we go again,” she sighed.

Al-Sadr’s support, which extends to parts of southern Iraq, has shown signs of eroding. Although the party was the biggest vote-getter in the October election, its total votes were under a million, less than previous elections.

The party has been part of several governments over the years, but Sadr City has seen little improvement. Despite his portrayal as a hero of the dispossessed, his party has a large network of civil servants across Iraq’s state institutions ready to do its bidding. Contractors doing business with the ministries under his control have complained of harassment and threats from party members.

Critics accuse the cleric of using his followers as pawns by evoking the legacy of his father, Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, a highly respected Shiite religious figure killed by Saddam’s regime in the 1990s.

In Sadr City, his supporters are quick to defend him, saying opponents in power have thwarted his agenda.

Many said his calls to protest gave them purpose beyond the monotony of their impoverished lives. The protest call is conveyed from Sadr’s party offices down to tribal leaders, who pass it on to their members.

Many protesters who stormed parliament on Saturday said it was their first glimpse of the halls of power, where they are rarely welcome.

“I saw the big buildings, the beautiful rooms, and I thought ‘How can this exist in the same city where I’m struggling?’,” said Mohammed Alaa, a merchant in Sadr City. “Aren’t we human too?”

Portraits of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, hang outside almost every door in Sadr City. Ashura, next Monday, commemorates his killing, and Iraqis usually march in their thousands to mark the day in the holy city of Karbala.

Al-Sadr’s messages are filled with references to Hussein’s sacrifice and calls to rise up against oppression. In Saturday’s speech, al-Sadr said he was against bloodshed but “reform only comes through sacrifice” and pointed to the imam’s example.

The comparison resonates with his followers. A portrait of Imam Hussein glitters in Ibrahim’s modest living room.

“Imam Hussein called for reform and revolution, and now our leaders are too,” Ibrahim said. “Of course some can ignore it, but we can’t.”

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