[Marxism] ‘Our Patience Is Over’: Why Iraqis Are Protesting
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 21 08:52:59 MST 2019
NY Times, Nov. 21, 2019
‘Our Patience Is Over’: Why Iraqis Are Protesting
Sadr City residents have come in droves to Baghdad’s protests, driven by
anger at the Iraq government’s neglect and fueled by their long history
By Alissa J. Rubin
SADR CITY, Iraq — In the morning, the squarely built father of four wore
flowing tribal robes to receive visitors in his garden, but by early
afternoon he was in jeans, traveling light, his cellphone in one hand
and his to-do list in his head.
He had a half dozen stops before he reached Tahrir Square in Baghdad,
ground zero for the demonstrations now shaking Iraq.
The man, Bassim al-Kaabi, 41, is one of scores of people organizing the
protests from Sadr City, a vast, impoverished neighborhood of Baghdad
with a history of defying the government.
“Let us be frank, we are poor people in Sadr City and we need many
things: schools, health clinics, jobs,” said Mr. al-Kaabi, who drives a
taxi to support his family.
“What is a pity is that we believed the politicians who said, ‘vote for
us and we will do our best for you,’” he said. “But then we found they
were liars and so now we are saying, ‘enough.’”
For the last five weeks, more than 200,000 Iraqis across the country
have gathered on any given day to demonstrate against the government.
Security forces have killed at least 320 and wounded about 15,000,
according to the United Nations office in Iraq.
The protesters are angry about corruption, unemployment and Iran’s
influence. Many are educated, idealistic young people, who are mostly
urban and secular. But the largest group are working-class and poor
Shiite Muslims, either from the southern part of the country or with
These Iraqis have suffered decades of economic deprivation as well as
government oppression by the Sunni Muslims, who controlled the
government during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. And they have a
history of violent resistance.
They feel frustrated that having endured Saddam Hussein’s reign, the
civil war that followed his overthrow and then the invasion of the
Islamic State, their lives have seen little improvement.
Most of Sadr City’s residents are descended from people who migrated
from Iraq’s south, and retain rural and tribal ties there. So the
neighborhood offers a window into the passions driving the current
protests and its roots in southern Iraq’s tradition of defiance.
With more than three million inhabitants, Sadr City is crowded and
littered. Its larger boulevards give way to smaller unpaved streets and
cracked asphalt alleys.
Public baths are a feature of life, a place for male bonding and a rare
source of plentiful hot water. As in much of Baghdad, electricity is
rarely on for more than half the day, but hardly any family can afford
its own generator, so vast spider webs of wire spin out from ones shared
by a neighborhood.
The heat in the summer means life is lived on the street, and in
makeshift gardens and empty lots. People sleep on the roofs to escape
the indoor swelter.
Despite the deprivation, Sadr City is a place of intense energy that has
produced some of Iraq’s best musicians and poets, as well as painters
“Sadr City was always like a quarry filled with clay and when you dig
deep, you find jewels,” said Wagih Abbas, a poet and well-known Iraqi
writer, who grew up in Sadr City.
Mr. al-Kaabi, known as Abu Tiba to his family and fellow protest
organizers, lives with his wife and children in a small house his father
built. On his street is a median strip. Like his neighbors, he has
transformed the part outside his house into a small garden.
Abu Tiba’s father tends it and has made the tight space into a haven of
flowers and fruit trees — a reminder of the southern Iraqi gardens of
his childhood. There are brilliant orange-pink lantanas, red desert
roses, flowering jasmine and an apple and a fig tree.
His neighbor has turned a similar garden into an outdoor reception room,
scattering it with carpets to receive friends and relatives. In one
corner are two large birdhouses with singing canaries that taunt the
chickens wandering in the grass. It is possible to sit here and forget
the surrounding noise and ugliness.
Earlier this month, Abu Tiba’s day started in earnest when he tore
himself away from his garden and set out to prepare for the demonstrations.
Like many in Sadr City, he still has family in the south. His cousin was
executed by Saddam Hussein, and he has endured the humiliation of a
corrupt system — paying for a government job only to be denied the position.
“The nature of Sadr City is tribal and the ethic of the tribe is that if
something happens to one person, then everyone starts to help in their
own way,” he said, explaining why it has been so easy to rally his
He stopped first on a street corner where a friend who runs a catering
business was supervising young men stirring six caldrons bubbling with
lentil and soybean soup — enough to serve 500 protesters.
Next was a quick visit to one of Sadr City’s oldest markets, where
butchers and fishmongers, greengrocers and cloth sellers work cheek by jowl.
One butcher closed early to make sandwiches for protesters’ dinners.
Nearby a fruit seller plucked Abu Tiba’s sleeve and showed him a large
burlap blanket heaped on the floor, then whipped it away like a magician
to reveal 100 watermelons he had readied to take to Tahrir Square.
At a cloth store, the deaf son of the owner had been collecting money
from other stalls. He signed to Abu Tiba that he now had $140 and would
be making sandwiches for the demonstrators; could someone take them to
Tahrir Square? Yes, someone could, Abu Tiba nodded.
It is easy to find transport to the demonstrations; in Sadr City,
ancient taxis spew fumes next to horse-drawn wagons and thousands of
tuk-tuks. Rarely seen in more affluent Baghdad neighborhoods, the
three-wheeled, motorized tuk-tuk has become the demonstrators’
unofficial bus and ambulance service.
“This is a revolution of the poor, of the disappointed,” Abu Tiba said.
The first settlers in Sadr City, mostly poor farmers and fishermen, came
more than 60 years ago to escape the punishing feudal system run by
wealthy sheikhs who cared little for those who worked their fields and
harvested their date trees.
Revolt and resistance was part of their identity. Their grandfathers in
the south resisted British efforts to colonize Iraq in 1920. They lost
that battle but not their suspiciousness of outsiders.
Most Sadr City residents, like many people in southern Iraq, are
followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist and populist Shiite cleric
and leader whose family long resisted the authority of Saddam Hussein’s
The dictator assassinated Mr. al-Sadr’s father and brothers, and
tortured to death other family members. Those loyal to the Sadr family
suffered as well.
There was forced conscription during the Iran-Iraq war, from 1980 to
1988. “Almost every family was touched by this,” said Mr. Abbas, the
Sadr City poet.
There was routine targeting of anyone trying to pray in public, which
Saddam Hussein saw as an effort to rally the Shiites against the ruling
Sunnis, said Sheikh Jalil al-Sarkhi, 70, a cleric and Sadr City native,
who leads a modest mosque there.
“I could be arrested just for carrying a prayer rug,” he said.
Those decades of resistance prepared Sadr City for its fight against the
Mr. al-Sadr wanted the United States military out of Iraq. When the
Americans came and tried to subdue his militias, United States soldiers
were relentlessly attacked.
Roadside bombs targeted Humvees, and booby traps littered the
neighborhood. Children were used as lookouts.
Sadr City today remains armed and ready to defend its own.
The Sadr Organization, of which Abu Tiba is a member, and which has ties
to Mr. al-Sadr’s militia, is helping to coordinate the protests from the
neighborhood. Its members are thick on the ground at the protests,
controlling strategic positions.
Protesters being treated for the effects of tear gas fired by security
forces in Baghdad.Credit...Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
In midafternoon, Abu Tiba met with leaders of his sub-tribe, the Al
Bunda. There were about 20 men in tribal robes and their sons and a few
daughters, dressed neatly as if for the first day of school; they
climbed into minibuses, taxis, a pickup truck and a jeep.
As they drove off, all of Sadr City seemed to be coming along with them.
At a traffic circle, a father and daughter clambered into the pickup.
Everyone was waving flags and honking horns.
Abu Tiba’s group parked more than a mile from the protests and unfurled
its tribal flag.
Out of nowhere some of the men produced instruments — a large drum and
the traditional southern reed flute. The group half walked, half danced
the final mile, chanting, “Shala kala, kulhom haramiya” or “Pull them
out by the roots, all of them are thieves.”
A woman who had brought her five children — all wearing tribal flags —
said she had come from Sadr City to support “our brothers.”
“Really I want change,” said Najla Latif, 42. “Our patience is over now,
we waited 16 years after Saddam and we still have nothing.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad.
More information about the Marxism