Sadr City and Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Al Talebeya exit, one of the passageways that leads into Sadr City, east Baghdad, was open as usual as the people milled in and out of the city. However last Sunday, 11 May, something was substantially different. What was missing from the customary scene was the sound of gunfire; instead, women and children were smiling and expressing signs of joy that had been absent in the past month.
On the way to Sadr City, Asharq Al-Awsat called Tahseen al Shekhli, Iraqi political analyst and spokesman for the Baghdad security plan who, upon finding out our destination, said, “You will witness today what you did not witness the previous time, the agreement [the ceasefire agreement] has relieved the people and given them hope.”
Al Shekhli confirmed that there is action underway to open up all the entrances to the city and restore it to the way it was, moreover adding that a number of services were starting to become available in the city. He added that the Ministries of Water Resources and Electricity were ready to restore the electrical systems which were damaged during clashes.
Al Shekhli confirmed that the residents of the city have two days [remaining] to hand over those wanted by the authorities, to put an end to armed militants on the streets, and to clear out explosive devices on roads so as to allow the Iraqi forces into the city. He pointed out that the government has not, and will not, target Sadrists and that the group has “begun to become aware [of its role] to shoulder national responsibility with the rest of the Iraqis and now knows that outlawed criminal gangs are not part of the [Sadrist] trend and that they must be handed over.”
The militiamen who had been rampant and dominated over the city since 25 March have strikingly disappeared. In some of the streets we saw a few armed militants who disappeared between the houses when we approached closer. There is a heavy US aircraft presence; they are clearly visible suspended in the airspace above the city.
Meanwhile, parked in front of the Jazaer police station were several trucks carrying food aid, medical supplies and humanitarian aid. The head of the police station told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “the government has sent this aid early this morning and it will be distributed to the people of the city, especially the areas that have been held under direct siege.”
Our arrival into Sadr City was after office hours but the city’s residents pointed out that the municipal services and some water and electricity services had been made available from the morning. They also disclosed that the security forces had opened up parts of Fallah Street, a major thoroughfare, to vehicular traffic.
In the market, we found an elderly woman setting up her vegetables and sitting on the ground as she began to sell her goods to customers. Umm Ali told Asharq Al-Awsat that she used to sell vegetables at the market every day for the past 15 years but that she had stopped doing so during the recent armed confrontations.
When one of my children told me the confrontations had ended, she said, the first thing I did was to pick some of the vegetables I had planted from the plot of land by my house and went to the market.
She said that the clashes were between “Saddam and the sons of the revolution,” in reference to Sadr City’s old name [Revolution City] before it changed to Saddam City after which it was named Sadr City in honor of Muqtada al Sadr’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al Sadr, after the fall of Saddam’s regime. The wonder of it all was that the elderly lady seemed to be completely unaware of the fact that Saddam had been executed!
Although Asharq Al-Awsat had tried to secure a meeting with a Mehdi army official in the al Shahid al Sadr’s office, one of his colleagues at the office relayed the official’s message saying that he was targeted and that Sadrist leadership figures could no longer visit the office, especially given the presence of aircrafts that monitor all movements. He said, through his comrade, that he preferred to be contacted by phone.
Describing the situation in the city following the ceasefire, the Sadrist official Farid al Fadeli said that there has been no change whatsoever and that the Mehdi army was still on the alert and prepared to counterattack any attacks on the city.
He added: “The fighting is still ongoing between the Mehdi army and the Iraqi and US security forces because they still target us with their weapons, how can we take a different stance?”
His reaction to the ceasefire agreement was, “It means nothing to us until we receive an official statement from al Sayyed Muqtada al Sadr ordering us to end the fighting – then we will obey the instructions and implement the agreement. To this moment, al Sayyed has not issued any statements, which is why things will remain as they are.”
But it is not only the city that is witnessing difficult circumstances, according to the manager of Imam Ali hospital Dr. Qasim [al Mudalla], the hospital is struck by hard and “tragic” times. Dr. Qasim told Asharq Al-Awsat that he was calling upon concerned parties to visit the hospital to see the state it is in, “Words no longer suffice to describe the situation and deliver our demands,” he said.
“I will not speak of surgical operations,” he continued, “nor will I discuss the necessary medication, I will raise the matter of cotton wool, which is considered one of the most basic necessities but of which we have run out. You could take that as a measure for other things.”
The doctor confirmed that the hospital had not received any medical supplies or assistance from either the government or civilian parties.
During our tour, there was an unremitting sound of dull explosions in the distance and it was not clear where they were or who was being targeted. Until last Sunday 11 May, according to the statistics at the al Shahid al Sadr’s office and according to the health authorities at Imam Ali hospital, over 1,320 people, including women and children were killed and injuries exceed 3,321.
Abu Saleh, a city resident, said that although food was available, it had become so expensive that it was unaffordable and the traders could no longer bring their goods into the city. Electrical services are only available in the evenings and no municipal services were available out of fear for the workers’ safety and out of concern that they will be targeted by snipers.
Although the schools had reopened, the students were not attending. A mother who stood by the doorway of her house said, “The exams are drawing near and we are concerned about the future of our children. They have not finished their syllabuses and the Ministry of Education has announced that it will not postpone exams in the conflict zones.”
As we left the city, a militiaman who had approached us several times but remained wary of meeting us finally said, “Just leave before the evening sets in because it is full of many surprises.”
We took the advice of the unidentified armed man and left the city as we prayed under our breath for hope and the safety of the poverty-stricken residents of the city.