Sadr City Conditions Worsen

Weeks of fighting have shut off many essential services in the Shia neighbourhood.

Sadr City Conditions Worsen

Weeks of fighting have shut off many essential services in the Shia neighbourhood.

Living conditions in Sadr City, already one of Baghdad’s most impoverished slums, have deteriorated sharply following weeks of fighting between Shia militiamen and United States-backed Iraqi troops that has killed hundreds, according to Iraqi lawmakers.

“The situation has deteriorated significantly because most of the services have been stopped,” said Aliyah Nassif Jassim, a member of parliament from the Iraqia bloc, who recently visited the district as part of a parliamentary delegation. “Many civilian homes have been destroyed as a result of the air strikes and the military operations.”

A fragile four-day ceasefire agreement between radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi government signed on May 12 has reduced but not halted fighting in the area, a Shia neighbourhood run by Sadr militiamen. The US military has maintained that Iranian fighters are supporting Sadr loyalists there. Iran has denied having a military presence in Iraq.

Salih al-Agili, an MP loyal to Sadr who lives in Sadr City, said more than 100 houses have been destroyed by the continuous skirmishing and air strikes since the outbreak of hostilities more than a month ago.

The district lacks an adequate water supply while medical provision and the sewage system have gone from bad to worse, say lawmakers. Trash has not been collected for weeks and is piling up in the streets and around houses.

Hospitals are short on electricity and small public and private clinics have shut down altogether. Government spokesman Tahssin al-Sheikhli said that six hospitals in Sadr City were temporarily closed during fighting because the militants used them to launch attacks.

He said more than 900 people have died and more than 2,600 have been injured – including civilians – since the fighting began. The government said it would use the ceasefire to allow aid to flow into the area.

While the government and military are claiming success in fighting terrorism and militias – and have gained popular support in their efforts to battle Sadr’s Mahdi army – some are critical of the tough stance taken by US and Iraqi forces.

“The air strikes have proven to be useless,” said Kurdistan Alliance MP Mahmood Osman, in reference to the US bombing raids on Sadr City. “Civilians are hurt the most. Israel tried it in Gaza, and it didn’t work.”

The government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has pledged to crack down on all militias. Sadr’s movement accuses Iraqi officials of deliberately targeting its members, a charge the latter deny.

“The goal of the operations is to put an end to the Sadrist movement,” said Falah Shanshal, an MP loyal to Sadr. “If not, Maliki would have tried using dialogue before resorting to a military solution.”

The frequent clashes between the US-backed Iraqi forces and Sadr’s militiamen have brought chaos and fear to the neighbourhood. Over the last two years, the area had been relatively calm as sectarian violence exploded in other parts of Baghdad.

But now streets are virtually empty, stores close by mid-day and even mundane tasks have become dangerous.

The 16-year-old nephew of Saad Hanoon, a 38-year-old ministry of trade employee who lives in Sadr City, was killed by a bullet as he tried to turn on the family’s generator on their roof.

“We couldn’t take him to a hospital because the security situation was terrible and there were no cars in the street to take him,” said Hanoon.

“It’s like you’re deciding to commit suicide if you want to go on top of the roof because you will be at the mercy of American snipers and aimless barrages of bullets from the militants.”

“We used to work until around 11 at night, and there were many customers, but now they’re all gone,” said Abu Ahmed, a 50-year-old grocer in Sadr City who did not give his full name.

Air strikes by US forces have inflicted the most damage in the area, known as a stronghold against the US-led occupation. Yet some in the district are sharply critical of the militias who hold sway here.

“The militants don’t care about the lives of people,” said one Sadr City resident, a civil servant. “For example, they plant roadside bombs next to people’s homes because they can’t plant them in the streets for fear that they might be targeted by the American snipers.”

Many Baghdad residents and MPs back the government’s efforts to fight Sadr’s militia because they agree with officials’ declaration that only forces of the state should have weapons, said Hashim Hassan, dean of Baghdad University’s media department.

Baghdad residents, meanwhile, fear the shaky ceasefire will not hold, and that the weeks-long standoff between US-backed Iraqi forces and Sadr’s militias will become an all-out war.

“The government needs to put an end to the miseries of the residents in [Sadr] City either through a military solution or by sitting down with the Sadrist movement,” said Hanoon.

“There should be an end to the rule of jungle,” said Mohammad Turkey, a 29-year-old finance ministry employee who lives in Adhamiyah, which neighbours Sadr City.

The reporter is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad who asked to remain anonymous because of security concerns.

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