[Marxism] Some occupiers see gains in Sadr City, but people are standoffish at best

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Dec 17 10:03:33 MST 2004

The Fallujah battle is now being more clearly registered as a setback
for Washington, which it was politically from the first "rollover" week
on.  But the Shia-Sunni division (Split? I think that is premature and
partly US wishful thinking.) The Shia make up an estimated  75 percent
of the Arab population of Iraq.I leave aside the Kurdish population,
which has not regarded itself as Iraqi for many decades and is, in
consciousness and in fact, part of another nation. 
The following shows that the US is attempting to take advantage of the
Shia pullback from fighting to provde some visible or credible gains for
the people of Sadr City.  And it shows the people are skeptical at best
(from the US point of view) but not turning away any constructive
efforts.  The occupiers' sentiments that they would rather work on
construction projects than fight can be assumed to be wholly sincere,
from what we know.
I think its important to keep track of the US attempts to reach out to
the Sunnis, and not reject them out of hand on general ideological
grounds, because I believe this war cannot be won by the
national-independence forces without the deep involvement of the Shia
population.  The fighters in Fallujah and elsewhere have prevented the
US from gaining much from the current Shia lull, but the shifts that
take place in the post-election period will be decisive for the war.
Meanwhile the US will take maximum advantage of, as well as attempt to
encourage in ways we cannot know and cannot assume to know, any attacks
on the Shia that can be attributed to the resistance groups.
Fred Feldman
Highlights In Sadr City, gratitude mixed with distrust As U.S. works on
rebuilding, suspicions linger Sadr City Karim Kadim By Anthony Shadid
Updated: 1:02 a.m. ET Dec. 17, 2004 
BAGHDAD, Dec. 16 - Lt. Col. Lawrence "Barrett" Holmes, a tall, lanky
commander, bundled out of his cream-colored, armor-plated Humvee in flak
jacket, helmet and protective eyewear, held his M-16 rifle at the ready
and barked what goes for a command these days in Baghdad's toughest
neighborhood, what he calls his "slice of the pie." 
advertisement "Salaam aleikum!" he belted out, Arabic for "Peace be upon
you," inflected with a South Carolina drawl. 
With those words at a sewage station, he got down to business,
overseeing $138 million that is being spent in Sadr City, a vast warren
of 2.5 million people that, twice this year, was the scene of some of
the most intense fighting the American military has faced in Iraq. A
cease-fire is now in place, and Holmes can talk like an engineer (his
education) rather than a soldier (his training) -- waxing on about the
grade of roads, water runoff, sewage intake, trash disposal and
dedicated power lines to pump stations. 

. CIA analyst cautious about Iraq . Latest news on Iraq "We have two
kinds of folks," he said, "the haves and have-nots. Sadr City is pretty
much the have-nots." 
In scope, Holmes's task is among the most ambitious in Iraq: to reverse
the fortunes of a ghetto with a lavishly funded, labor-intensive
reconstruction program employing thousands. Yet the project opens a
window on the enormous difficulties encountered in the American
experience across this troubled country. 
The U.S. military touts Holmes's work as an example for battle-scarred
cities like Fallujah, and the altruism of the reconstruction is beyond
reproach. Barring another eruption of fighting, by March the men will
have demonstrated to the slum what many Iraqis expected from the
beginning of the occupation: rehabilitating a sewer system built for
one-sixth the people it serves, overhauling water distribution for
240,000 people, providing electricity for 180,000 people, and renovating
a hospital and building health clinics. 
But nearly two years on, many Iraqis say, the occupation has become more
than a simple ledger of tasks completed. The American experience has
become like the three-inch bulletproof windshield of a Humvee -- the
U.S. military can gaze through the glass while not always hearing what's
being said in the streets. In Sadr City, even in neighborhoods clouded
with the acrid haze of newly laid asphalt, words of appreciation are
often clouded with lingering suspicions. The disenchantment is so deep
in some places that it leaves a question most U.S. officials prefer not
to address: Is the battle for hearts and minds already lost? 
"The Americans came as soldiers, and they're here to serve their
interests," said Ziad Khalaf, a 25-year-old mechanic who talks less
about reconstruction and more about the lack of electricity and fuel for
a heater to keep his newborn son warm. 
Holmes has his answer to the question. "They're tired of fighting, they
want to move forward, and they want a better life, and that's what we
want to give them," he said as the day drew to a close over his base,
near a gas station snarled with waiting lines. 
His chief operations officer, Maj. Pete Andrysiak, offered another
perspective. "Things could have been done quicker," he acknowledged,
standing next to his parked Humvee. "Had we come in and been a little
bit more prepared, it would have had an impact. I like to think that.
They didn't necessarily know conditions were going to be the way they
"It's a lesson learned," he added. 
Specter of more fighting The motto for Holmes's 20th Engineer Battalion
is "build and fight." 
"We want to do less fighting and more building," Holmes said, smiling. 
The fighting erupted in the slum in April and August between U.S. forces
and the Mahdi Army, a militia run by Moqtada Sadr, a stridently
anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric whose popular father, assassinated by
Iraqi government agents in 1999, is the slum's namesake. While clashes
in Fallujah and Najaf overshadowed the battles in Sadr City, the
fighting in dense urban quarters was no less ferocious, and each time it
ended inconclusively with a lopsided toll: dozens of U.S. soldiers
killed, hundreds of militiamen dead. 
The slum remains Sadr's stronghold, and his clerics still serve as the
acknowledged authority in town. On any day, from 2 to 4 p.m., Ibrahim
Jabri, a handsome man in black turban, fields requests from scores of
supplicants gathered in the courtyard at the Sadr office, along one of
the slum's main streets: a few dollars for rent or food, help in
cracking down on car thieves, action against renegade militiamen.
Sometimes he boisterously jokes with them; other times he whispers in an
ear. Few in the slum doubt that the militia -- even with a lower
profile, its weapons now hidden -- would answer another call to arms
from him or the other clerics. 
"In an ideal world, that's where we want to get to -- that the hope for
the future will outweigh the desire to fight," said Andrysiak, a tall,
sturdily built environmental engineer from Austin. 
Arriving in March, Holmes, Andrysiak and the battalion felt they were
making tangible gains by July, before the second round of fighting broke
out. They didn't begin working in earnest again on the slum's
30-year-old infrastructure until Nov. 7 -- a three-month interruption.
As frustrating as that was, Holmes now exudes an exuberant optimism and
insists they have progressed past July's mark. 
"As long as we're not fighting, we'll keep going," he said.
"We've suffered for a lot of years," Khalaf said, "and we cannot endure
any more suffering." 
On his wall were representations of Shiite saints, a poster of Mecca and
six portraits of Moqtada Sadr and his father. 
"Until now," he added grimly, "we haven't seen anything from the
If he works "morning to night," he said, he makes 5,000 dinars a day
(about $3). With an ongoing fuel shortage, and persistent blackouts, he
spends 3,500 of that for kerosene to heat his home. That price is more
than double what it was a few months ago. A small can of powdered milk
for his 3-month-old son, Nur, costs 4,000 dinars, 20 times its price
before the war. 
"He likes to drink a lot of milk," Khalaf said with a laugh. 
Over the course of the occupation, the perception of American ability
has taken more twists than the Hollywood B-movies popular on pirated CDs
in Baghdad: from awe at technological prowess, to frustration at
unanswered promises, to suspicion of U.S. intentions, to conspiracies
meant to explain a life that has remained so bleak. The fuel shortage in
Baghdad is the latest crisis with too few answers. The government blames
persistent sabotage by insurgents and corruption so systemic as to be
But to men like Khalaf, even that falls short of explanation. 
"We're a people with so many resources and we have no heating oil?"
Khalaf asked. "How can this be?" 
"The Americans are responsible for this," he went on. Like others in
Sadr City, he suspects that crisis after crisis gives the Americans a
justification to remain in Iraq. "They could end the chaos in one
month," he said, "but they want to stay a long time." 
"We won't accept it," Khalaf said. 
Vying wth Sadr for credit In Sadr City, there is much visible from the
For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, the
sidewalks of potholed asphalt and buckling cement are cleared of trash.
Orange dumpsters are spaced every so often along the neighborhood's main
thoroughfare, with a painted message scrawled by hand on their side:
"Please leave them as they are." Along streets usually flooded with
green sewage in which barefoot children play, the resurrected pumps have
drained away the refuse, directing it to a station newly cleared of
debris with U.S. funds. 
And then there is much that is less visible to U.S. forces. 
Graffiti celebrates the fight of Sadr's militia. "Congratulations on the
victory of the army of Imam Mahdi," read one. Others, in a similar vein:
"Yes, yes, Moqtada" and "Long live the brave resistance." Over three
days this week, the Sadr office distributed 13,000 posters to mark the
anniversary of the death of Sadr's father, adorning utility poles,
storefronts and walls. 
Holmes and Andrysiak acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to get
their message out. They want to bolster the local government and
encourage officials to share in the credit for reconstruction. No
project can carry too great an American footprint, they say, for fear of
attracting insurgent attacks. They still vie with Sadr's office, which
has tried to claim credit for the work in the past. 
"If you talk to local people on the ground, they know who is
spearheading the effort and making it happen," Holmes said. 
"People understand," Andrysiak insisted. 
The tangible improvements in Sadr City have indeed encouraged some, even
if their praise is hedged. 
"The situation is good," said Lazim Finjan, 60. But he added: "I'd still
like them to pave the street. And the lights. There's still no
electricity." He paused. "More people should be cleaning the streets,
and they should get rid of the thieves." 
Along Urfuli Street, where Khalaf worked, men gathered in a grocery
store and talked about what was better in their neighborhood. Security
had improved dramatically, they said, but they credited the foot patrols
at night of the Mahdi Army. In civilian clothes, their weapons hidden,
groups of five to 10 militiamen were responsible for every few blocks. 
"With the Mahdi Army, we understand their language. If they don't do
something for us, we'll complain to the Sadr office," said Karim Abed, a
driver and 42-year-old father of six. "How do we complain to the
Americans? Whom do we complain to?" 
Other men pointed out what the militia was doing: Its workers had jobs
on the U.S.-funded projects, and it was providing protection to the
engineers, some of whom had been kidnapped by criminal gangs. For
months, they said, the militia was organizing lines at the gas stations,
stopping price gouging, at times thuggishly. The U.S. military
eventually forced the militiamen to leave. 
"The Sadr office wants to help us, but the Americans won't let them,"
said Dhia Ahmed, a 21-year-old whose family owns the store, where a
picture of Sadr hung on a refrigerator next to a poster of a Shiite
saint. "The Americans don't respect other people." 
"The Sadr office is trying to serve the people," said a friend, Abdullah
Muhsin. "They work for nothing in return." 
They talked of other slights, communicated by Sadr's men in the sermons
that draw thousands every Friday and then pass through the neighborhood
by word of mouth as a mix of rumor and fact. They suggested the streets
were being newly paved so that U.S. tanks could pass over them. They
said the Americans had prevented the militia from protecting the city's
churches and mosques. They insisted that U.S. troops were here for their
own interests. When pressed about what those interests were, Muhsin shot
back, "Ask them." Then he and the others settled on an explanation heard
often in Baghdad these days: "It is a crusade against a Muslim country."

On the street outside, men hammered battered sheets of metal, collecting
them for scrap. Horns blared. A dead rat sat in a pile of trash not yet
swept up from the road -- scraps of fetid green lettuce mixing with
rotting watermelon rind and orange peels. 
Hassan Ali, a 17-year-old sitting with them, volunteered what might be
the occupation's best-case scenario these days. 
"The Americans don't have anything to do with us," he said with a shrug,
"and we don't have anything to do with them." C 2004 The Washington Post
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