April 9, 2003, was the day Baghdad fell to U.S. forces. One year later, it is rising up against them.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld claims that the resistance is just a few “thugs, gangs and terrorists.” This is dangerous, wishful thinking. The war against the occupation is now being fought out in the open, by regular people defending their homes — an Iraqi intifada.
“They stole our playground,” an 8-year-old boy in Sadr City told me last week, pointing at six tanks parked in a soccer field next to a rusty jungle gym. The field is a precious bit of green in an area of Baghdad that is otherwise a swamp of raw sewage and uncollected garbage.
Sadr City has seen little of Iraq’s multibillion-dollar “reconstruction,” which is partly why Muqtader Sadr and his Al Mahdi army have so much support here. Before U.S. occupation chief L. Paul Bremer III provoked Sadr into an armed conflict by shutting down his newspaper and arresting and killing his deputies, the Al Mahdi army was not fighting coalition forces; it was doing their job for them.
After all, in the year it has controlled Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority still hasn’t managed to get the traffic lights working or to provide the most basic security for civilians. So in Sadr City, Sadr’s so-called “outlaw militia” can be seen engaged in such subversive activities as directing traffic and guarding factories. It was Bremer who created Iraq’s security vacuum; Sadr simply filled it.
But as the June 30 “handover” to Iraqi control approaches, Bremer now sees Sadr and the Al Mahdi as a threat that must be eliminated — at any cost to the the communities that have grown to depend on them. Which is why stolen playgrounds were only the start of what I saw in Sadr City last week. At Al Thawra Hospital, I met Raad Daier, an ambulance driver with a bullet in his abdomen, one of 12 shots he says were fired at his ambulance from a U.S. Humvee. At the time of the attack, according to hospital officials, he was carrying six people injured by U.S. forces, including a pregnant woman who had been shot in the stomach and lost her baby.
I saw charred cars, which dozens of eyewitnesses said had been hit by U.S. missiles, and I confirmed with hospitals that their drivers had been burned alive. I also visited Block 37 of the Chuadir District, a row of houses where every door was riddled with holes. Residents said U.S. tanks drove down their street firing into homes. Five people were killed, including Murtada Muhammad, age 4.
And Thursday, I saw something that I feared more than any of this: a copy of the Koran with a bullet hole through it. It was lying in the ruins of what was Sadr’s headquarters in Sadr City. A few hours earlier, witnesses said, U.S. tanks broke down the walls of the centre after two guided missiles pierced its roof.
The worst damage, however, was done by hand. Clerics at the Sadr office said soldiers entered the building and shredded photographs of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shiite cleric in Iraq. When I arrived at the destroyed centre, the floor was covered with torn religious texts, including copies of the Koran that had been ripped and shot through with bullets. And it did not escape the notice of the Shiites here that hours earlier, U.S. soldiers had bombed a Sunni mosque in Fallouja.
For months, the White House has been making ominous predictions of a civil war breaking out between the majority Shiites, who believe it’s their turn to rule Iraq, and the minority Sunnis, who want to hold onto the privileges they amassed under Saddam Hussein. But last week, the opposite appeared to have taken place. Both Sunnis and Shiites have seen their homes attacked and their religious sites desecrated. Up against a shared enemy, they are beginning to bury ancient rivalries and join forces against the occupation. Instead of a civil war, they are on the verge of building a common front. You could see it at the mosques in Sadr City on Thursday: Thousands of Shiites lined up to donate blood destined for Sunnis hurt in the attacks in Fallouja.
“We should thank Paul Bremer,” Salih Ali told me. “He has finally united Iraq. Against him.”