In Baghdad’s Sadr City, cleric’s support supports protests

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BAGHDAD (TBEN) — The four sons of Khalil Ibrahim are among thousands of followers of an influential Shia cleric who staged a sit-in outside Iraq’s parliament after storming the building last week with a stunning move that set the country into a new era of political cast instability.

Ibrahim is all behind them, he says, as are practically all of his neighbors in Sadr City, Baghdad’s huge district of millions of largely impoverished Shiites that support the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

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

Al-Sadr derives its political weight largely from their seemingly unending support. The cleric’s message has sparked minutely organized mass protests at various times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a standstill and disrupting the political process. Many in Sadr City proclaim their devotion to the cleric and reject corruption charges against his movement.

They are drawn to his religious rhetoric and the promise of long-sought change and recognition for a community among Iraq’s most deprived.

Most 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 the TBEN did not complete the degree, and those who did said they could not find work.

Spurred on by protest calls from al-Sadr’s party, they overran parliament on Saturday, before retreating to the sit-in outside the building. Their meeting prevents al-Sadr’s Iranian-backed political rivals from continuing to form a government. Al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the most recent elections, had demanded a majority government that would have pushed those rivals out.

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The deadlock extends an unprecedented political deadlock 10 months since the federal elections were held.

The cleric calls on his followers to take action by provoking a powerful combination of religion, most notably by invoking the sacrifices of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shia Islam. He also takes advantage of Sadr City’s long history as the epicenter of mass social demonstrations where feelings of oppression and revolution are deeply rooted.

This history dates back to the creation of the district shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 by Abdel Karim Qassim.

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

Promises to develop the area never materialized in Iraq’s turbulent modern history.

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

In a speech Wednesday, al-Sadr ordered his followers to continue with the sit-in and called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and amendment of the constitution.

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

All, a total of 12 people, live in a house where the rent makes up the largest part of their income. This is despite Ibrahim having worked his entire life as a security guard outside the Ministry of Education.

Hamida, Ibrahim’s wife, is desperate to have a house of her own.

“We filled out government housing applications, we filled out job applications, but nothing worked,” she said.

At that time the electricity went out. “There it goes again,” she sighed.

Al-Sadr’s support, which extends into parts of southern Iraq, is showing signs of erosion. Although the party was the biggest vote-getter in the October elections, the total number of votes was less than a million, less than in the previous elections.

The party has been part of multiple governments over the years, but Sadr City has seen little improvement. Despite its role as a hero of the dispossessed, his party has an extensive network of appointed officials in Iraqi state institutions ready to do its bidding. Contractors doing business with the ministries under his control have complained of harassment and threats from his party members.

Critics accuse the cleric of using his followers as pawns by invoking the legacy of his father, Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, a highly respected Shia religious figure who was assassinated by Saddam’s regime in the 1990s.

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

Many said his calls to protest gave them a purpose beyond the monotony of their poverty-stricken lives. The protest appeal is being circulated from Sadr’s party offices to tribal chiefs, who relay the appeal 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 that I’m having a hard time with?'” said Mohammed Alaa, a grocer in Sadr City. “Aren’t we human too?”

On almost every door in Sadr City hang portraits of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Ashura, next Monday, will commemorate his assassination, and Iraqis usually march by the thousands to celebrate the day in the holy city of Karbala.

Al-Sadr’s messages are infused 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,” citing the imam’s example.

The equation resonates with his followers. A portrait of Imam Hussein shines 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 that, but we can’t.”