Unrest in Iraq

Sadr City – a hotbed of resistance

The resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has not managed to quell the unrest in Iraq. After a deadly weekend in which many lost their lives, the wave of protests has swelled up once again. Most of the demonstrators come from Sadr City in Baghdad. Birgit Svensson paid a visit to the Shia suburb of the Iraqi capital

"It's getting dirty now," says one demonstrator on Tahrir Square in Baghdad, when asked about the events of last weekend. It was the bloodiest two days in a long time since the protests began in Iraq on 1 October. In the capital alone, 25 people lost their lives. Across the country, almost 50 people are said to have been killed.

It began when thousands of supporters of the Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia descended on the central protest camp of the anti-government demonstrators on Baghdad's Tahrir Square. In what was obviously a co-ordinated attack, the men approached the camp from all directions. Some of the militia-linked attackers carried Iraqi flags or the emblem of the paramilitary unit. Others held aloft the portrait of the respected Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had forced the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi to resign the previous Friday by calling on parliament to withdraw its support for the government.

Initially, the situation remained calm, but on the following day, shots were fired on Rasheed Street, which is only a stone's throw from Tahrir Square. Eye witnesses said that a real street battle ensued. Some say that the security forces opened fire on demonstrators. Others claim that the Shia militias were fighting each other for control of the street.

"We'll throw them all out!"

The Hashd al-Shaabi militia is closely linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which have played a key role in bankrolling and training the militia. It was also founded in order to fight the terrorist organisation IS. Increasingly, the protests are being directed at neighbouring Iran and its meddling in Iraqi politics. Most of the demonstrators on Tahrir Square come from Sadr City, the Shia district in Baghdad.

Hussein in his bright red tuk-tuk in Sadr City (photo: Birgit Svensson)
"This is our revolution," says Hussein proudly. But this time, he adds, it was started by the people, not by the military. The prime minister's resignation is not enough. And what about Iran? On this point, Hussein is more cagey. He looks around from left to right before tersely replying: "Iran is our government, and I am against the government"

"We'll throw them out! We'll throw them all out!" Hussein sits confidently in his pillar box red tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled auto rickshaw, as he drives through the streets of "Medina al-Sadr", as the district is known in Arabic. Every morning at 7 a.m., he eats breakfast at one of the countless fast food eateries in the district, generally soup, machlama (an egg dish with tomatoes, onions, and cheese) and Iraqi hobbes, a diamond-shaped bread that is served warm around this time of day.

Hussein quite obviously enjoys his food; the 17-year-old is stout and stocky. During the day, he drives people around Sadr City, does the shopping for people who can no longer walk, or acts as a courier. At 9 p.m. sharp, he joins the demonstrators on Tahrir Square. He usually stays for about five hours.

The heroes of the protest movement

Hussein eventually brings his tuk-tuk to a halt on one of the main roads in Sadr City and points to a car park where row upon row of little yellow and red vehicles are parked. They have become the heroes of the protest movement. The "revolutionary newspaper" has been named after them and graffiti all over the district depict these nippy little auto rickshaws in action – sometimes even hovering in flight over everything.

Here in this car park in Sadr City, they are stationary. This is where they are washed and repaired upon returning from Tahrir Square; this is where they re-fuel before heading back there again. According to Hussein, they are not allowed to buy petrol at normal petrol stations; they have to buy cans of petrol on the street instead. And it's true: there are mobile tuk-tuk petrol stations all over Sadr City, selling either bottles or little cans of fuel.

There is no fuel for them in other districts, he says, just here. Hussein starts the engine and we are off again through the streets of Baghdad's stinking slum. Whenever it rains, as it often does at the moment, sewage and rain water often come together in puddles, festering on the cracked streets for days.

Baghdad's biggest slum

Sadr City is the biggest slum in the Iraqi capital. Most of the three million people who live here are Shia Arabs, and the majority of the population is poor. Anyone who gets on in life moves the outskirts of Sadr City, to Palestine Street, or even to another district altogether. But not many people manage to do that. Indeed, more people move to the district than move away from it. Sadr City is simply bursting at the seams.

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