In Sadr City, Baghdad, cleric backs protests

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BAGHDAD — Khalil Ibrahim’s four sons are among thousands of supporters of an influential Shia cleric who are 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 sprawling Baghdad neighborhood home to millions of largely impoverished Shia and which is at the heart of support for the cleric Muqtada al – Sadr.

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

Al-Sadr derives much of his political clout from their seemingly endless support. His word has sparked meticulously organized mass protests several times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a standstill and disrupting the political process. Many residents of Sadr City proclaim their devotion to al-Sadr, dismissing allegations of corruption against his movement.

They are drawn to its religious rhetoric and the promise of long-sought change and recognition for a community that is among the most deprived in Iraq.

Most residents of 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 AP did not complete their education, and those who did said they could not find work.

Prompted by calls for protest from al-Sadr’s party, they invaded parliament on Saturday, before retreating to a sit-in outside the building. Their gathering prevents al-Sadr’s Iranian-backed political rivals from moving forward with government formation. Al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the last election, was calling for a majority government that would oust his rivals.

The stalemate prolongs an unprecedented political stalemate, 10 months after the elections. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of people again answered al-Sadr’s call, gathering for a mass prayer in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

The cleric elicits a powerful combination of religion, including evoking the sacrifices of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shia Islam. It also taps into Sadr City’s long history as an epicenter of mass social protests where feelings of oppression and revolution run deep.

This history dates back to the founding 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 dispossessed of their land and suffered immense poverty. The original five sectors of the region grew over the following decades to reach 100 sectors, with 2.5 million inhabitants.

However, promises to develop the neighborhood never materialized throughout Iraq’s turbulent modern history and it fell into neglect, creating an urban underclass separated from the rest of Baghdad’s society.

Under Saddam Hussein, it became a center of Shiite resistance. After the US-led invasion in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City in honor of al-Sadr’s father.

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

Among the Ibrahims, requests are simpler. They want to own a house and find work. Ibrahim’s sons have only irregular daily jobs. His eldest is 23 years old and neither has gone beyond primary school.

The whole family – 12 people in total – live in a house where rent provides the bulk of their income, even though Ibrahim has worked all his life as a caretaker outside the Ministry of Education.

Hamida, Ibrahim’s wife, desperately wants to own her own house. “We filled out government housing applications, we filled out job applications, but nothing worked out,” she said.

While she was talking, the electricity went out. “Here we go again,” she sighs.

More recently, support for al-Sadr, which extends to parts of southern Iraq, has shown signs of eroding. Although the party received the most votes in the October elections, its vote total was less than one million, less than in 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 dispossessed hero, his party has a vast network of appointed officials across Iraqi state institutions ready to do its bidding. Contractors dealing with ministries under his control have complained of harassment and threats from members of his party.

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

In Sadr City, his supporters are quick to defend him, claiming that his political opponents have obstructed his agenda.

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

Many protesters who stormed parliament last 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 am fighting?'” said Sadr City grocer Mohammed Alaa. “Aren’t we human too?”

Portraits of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, hang outside almost every door in Sadr City. Ashura next Monday commemorates his murder, and Iraqis typically march in their thousands to mark the day in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s message is steeped in references to Hussein’s sacrifice and calls to rise up against oppression. In Saturday’s speech, al-Sadr said he was against bloodshed but added that “reform only comes through sacrifice”, citing the example of the imam.

The comparison resonates among 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 may ignore this, but we cannot.”

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