[Marxism] ‘Our Patience Is Over’: Why Iraqis Are Protesting

Louis Proyect 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 
of defiance.
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 
origins there.

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 
and sculptors.

“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 
Baath Party.

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.

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