Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Safety in Sadr City

Baghdad’s restive Shia suburb has become an unexpected haven for Kurds.
By Hussein Ali

Despite increasing reports of deteriorating relations between Kurds and Arabs in many areas of Iraq, the notorious Baghdad district of Sadr City has become an unlikely example of harmony among the two groups.


Stories of Kurds being attacked or forced to move from their homes in cities in the so-called Sunni Triangle have become commonplace, as have reports of harassment of the Kurdish community in certain Baghdad neighbourhoods and even in the eastern province of Baquba.


But thousands of Kurds continue to live peacefully with Arabs in one of the capital’s poorest slums, frequently described as a no-go area for Coalition troops.


Sadr City was created during the rule of Saddam’s predecessor, Prime Minister Abdul Kareem Kasim, in the Sixties. It was originally called Madinat al-Thawra – Revolution City – but was renamed Saddam City once the dictator was in power.


After the fall of his regime in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority decided to change the name to Sadr City, after the renowned Shia cleric Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, who was killed in Najaf in 1999 apparently by the Saddam regime, and whose son Muqtada al-Sadr now leads a radical Shia movement.


Jawad Hassan, a local butcher, explained that he was forced to leave Kurdistan by the Baathists in 1980. but says that although he and his neighbours still live in poverty, there is no tension between the two groups.


"Conditions are very basic in Sadr City, but we live quite peacefully with our Arab brothers. Problems can be solved because we get on well and we’ve all got used to living together.”


For Sirwan Jihad, who works as a driver, the reception his Arab neighbours gave his family when they arrived two decades ago softened the blow of being forced from their homes in Kurdistan.


“In 1975, the Baath party forced us out of our villages. We were put in military trucks with all our belongings and taken to Baghdad. After a while, we were allowed to buy houses in Sadr city. We moved in next to Arabs, who took good care of us and helped us a lot. We are really grateful to them for that.”


Emphasising the bond that has developed between the residents of Sadr City, Jihad claimed that some Kurds in the area even rejected the traditionally pro-Coalition stance of their kinsmen in the north, and joined Muqtada’s force, the Mahdi Army, in its rebellion against the Iraqi government earlier this year.


“The Arabs are our brothers. Many Kurds fought with the Mahdi Army against the Coalition,” he said.


Around 5,000 Kurdish families are currently estimated to live in Sadr City. Few of them held well-paying government jobs during Saddam’s time, since they refused to become Baath party members.


Most work as porters, drivers or tradesmen, but while they are eking out a poor living in the capital, many prefer to keep living there rather than return to their original villages which still lack adequate power and water supplies.


Although they may now be free to return to their old homes in the north, most know they would find them in ruins, a thought that leaves many of them feeling betrayed by the Kurdish authorities.


“I am an old man,” said Asad Musa, an ethnic Kurd who works as a porter, as he set in a café dressed in traditional Arab costume. “I do menial work to earn a livelihood for my family. We live in a rented house. I don’t know what else to do. This is a miserable way to live. Our Kurdish leadership should be trying to find a solution to compensate us for what we lost.”


Labourer Jihad Salman, agreed. “I have asked Massoud Barzani, the leader of the ruling KDP [Kurdish Democratic Party] in Erbil, to look into our case. Around 30,000 people were displaced from their villages in 1975. There is still no water or power in these places and many homes are in ruins – how can we go back to them if the Kurdish authorities won’t help us?”


Salman added, “Here at least, there is mutual respect between Kurds and Arabs. My sister married an Arab. They suffered just as badly as we did under Saddam.”


Hussein Ali and Salam Jihad are IWPR trainees.


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