Sadr City, Baghdad — The Sadr City area of Baghdad is a sprawling slum of nearly three million people. Predominantly Shia and the most poverty stricken area of the capital, most residents here celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni dominated Ba’athist regime.
For it was the Shia people of Sadr, perhaps more than any other group in Baghdad, that suffered the most under his brutal regime.
In a small, one-room house in Sadr City lives Sua’ad, a widow with eight young children. “I can do nothing but look at my children and cry,” she says, weeping throughout our conversation. “What are children to do without their father? No matter what I do, things will never be the same again.”
Three months ago Sua’ad’s 30-year-old husband, Abdullah Rahman, was killed after being caught in crossfire between US forces and the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In Sadr City – renamed from Saddam City – the economy is in ruins. Electricity supplies are erratic and the water is so dirty that there are constant outbreaks of cholera, Hepatitis-E and diarrhoea.
Like many neighbourhoods across Iraq, Sadr has seen more than its fair share of suffering. This the sort of place where civilian casualty figures, while difficult to monitor, are undoubtedly high.
Last month The Lancet, the leading British medical journal, published a report that estimated there had been some 98,000 civilian casualties in Iraq as a result of the US-led invasion and occupation.
The report which came in the wake of another assessment carried out by the non-governmental group Iraq Body Count (IBC) has resulted in calls to Tony Blair from a number of former diplomats, military men and academics to hold an inquiry into civilian deaths in Iraq. They say the UK like the US has a duty enshrined in international law to record the deaths – a claim Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has refuted.
“This is an estimate relying on media reports, and which we do not regard as reliable. It includes civilian deaths at the hands of terrorists as well as of the coalition forces,” insisted Straw in a written statement to the Commons in November.
Whatever the real truth of the figures, they do little to convey the grief and economic impact on families like that of Sua’ad Rahman who lose a father, husband or child.
“His last day he worked his job selling used clothing,” Sua’ad said quietly. Abdullah had come home for his break to eat with his family. He played with his seven-year-old son, then went outside to see what was happening when fighting broke out.
He returned shortly thereafter to tell Sua’ad he needed to go to close his small shop. Fighter jets thundered overhead dropping bombs, and small arms fire was audible across the streets.
“His shop is all we have,” explained Sua’ad, “I asked him not to go, but he said he would be right back.”
But her husband never came back. Sua’ad’s oldest child, Ahmed, is 14. Their small house is nearly empty. Aside from infrequent hand-outs from neighbours, they have no income.
“He was our father, and we are needing him so much,” she explains holding her arms out while a small child sits in her lap, “He was everything in my life.”
She pauses to catch her breath, but never stops weeping.
“We are living alone now. I have four children with asthma. Sometimes they can’t breathe and I can do nothing for them. All I do is stand with them and cry. He was helping me by taking them to the hospital and bringing the medicines, but now I am knocking on the doors of the neighbours.”
She looks outside as tears run down her cheeks.
“God will revenge the Americans for me. Now I have eight orphans, and I am the ninth. As they make us orphans, God is going to kick them out of our country. My husband did nothing.”
Sua’ad lives in the northern section of Sadr City, an area which saw the fiercest clashes last summer. While the US military does not keep a count of Iraqi casualties, the office of Muqtada al-Sadr estimates that 800 people were killed in the fighting in this area last summer before a ceasefire was reached.
The area was frequently bombed by US warplanes and helicopters. People are still wounded from unexploded cluster bombs found in small alleys between the cramped houses.
Across the street from Sua’ad, where crowded markets selling used clothing and shoes on old wooden stalls clutter the sidewalks, is the home of the Haider family.
Fifty-year-old mother, Um Haider lives with 21 other family members and relatives in an old, three-room house which does not have a toilet. Pools of raw sewage stand near the outer walls of the ramshackle building.
Her husband was killed in the Iran war, and her 20-year-old son, Ahmed, was killed during recent fighting in their area. His widow is pregnant and expecting a baby in the next month.
“He was so polite and religious, but he was not a fighter,” said Um Haider, crying as she spoke of her dead son.
The day Ahmed was killed a tank had been destroyed by the Mahdi Army. She went outside with him to see what happened, and he was struck in the head by shrapnel from a rocket fired at fighters from a US helicopter.
“His blood was all over me while he prayed for God to save us,” she said.
While her oldest son, Ali, and his two uncles work as labourers to support the family, Um Haider goes to her son’s grave each day.
Abu Khadim, sitting nearby sipping tea, spoke of his nephew’s death. “The Americans were taking everyone from the hospital in Sadr City if they were wounded, because they thought they were all Mahdi Army,” he said.
“So we took him out of Sadr City. But the next day, he died anyway.”
Ali, Ahmed’s 22-year-old brother, expressed the rage held by so many Iraqis who have lost loved ones to coalition forces. “When I grow older I will buy a Kalashnikov and I’m going to use it to shoot the Americans,” he said.
In another small home in the area, Salam Mussa lives with the six daughters, two sons and wife left behind by his brother Naim who was killed.
Thirty-two year-old Naim was at the nearby market when fighting broke out between the Mahdi Army and occupation forces. He was shot by US troops.
“I make $110 per month, but it is not enough,” said Salam while telling of how the family gets by. “When the kids hear tanks outside they say these are the people who killed their father.”
Naim’s mother Kussir wept as her husband recalled their dead son.
“This is the third of my kids to be killed. The Americans are savages. They do nothing but bring injustice.”
Rheem, Naim’s widow, cannot stop crying either. “My children keep looking at the pictures and remembering him too much. Zenab is the worst. Every day she is looking at the pictures and asking me when he’ll come home.”
Zenab, a four-year-old girl wearing rumpled clothes, sat nearby close to tears. “I don’t love the Americans because they shot my father. They frighten me with their helicopters every day. I want my dad to come back and have lunch with us again. That’s all I want.”