Saddam is airbrushed out by the city that bore his name
14 April 2003
The fresh black paint is everywhere. "Sadr
City", it says, where once the name was
"Saddam City". Outside the Aleppo
Intermediate School for Girls, I actually come
across a graffiti artist in action, painting over
"Saddam" and again inserting "Sadr".
The Imam Bakr Sadr of Najaf was one of the
first of Saddam's priestly victims. The governor
of Najaf, I recall, leant towards me with special
eagerness when I visited his city well over two
decades ago. "Yes, we hanged him," he said
with a smile. "And his sister." Legend has it -
all too real, I fear - that they burnt off his beard
with a cigarette lighter and hammered a nail
into his eye before they hanged him.
So now this city of Shia Muslim hovels, of open
sewers and burning rubbish, of piled-up loot -
buses seem to be a speciality - this centre of
opposition to the Baathist regime bears the
murdered Imam's name and the hopes of all
that he aspired to, not least an Islamic
Republic. Thus is it newly painted on another
wall: "Islam and al-Sadr do not accept looters."
And who should be a better spokesman for
such worthy sentiments than the Sheikh Aref
Jassim es-Saed, imam of the as-Sadjad
mosque and keeper of what must be half of
the loot stolen from chemists' shops across
Baghdad. Indeed, most of his mosque is piled
high with medicines and dentists' chairs and
spitoons and stretchers and bandages.
"It is all to be given to the people, to be
proportionately given back to hospitals who
need it," Sheikh Aref informs me, watching me
carefully over the top of his thin spectacles.
"We are for stopping all this looting. We are
making inventories and lists so that these
things will be given back to the people of
There are black-turbaned divines in the yard of
the mosque, fussing over sacks of
Vietnamese baby milk and cartons labelled
"Imported by the Republic of Iraq, Ministry of
Trade, State Company for Foodstuffs". I knew
where that came from. I watched the
scavengers entering the Ministry of Trade four days ago.
Across Sadr City - as it must now be called - there are checkpoints and
barrages and armed young men with thin beards. It's not exactly a Shia
revolution, although some of the gunmen admit they are looking for
"Wahabis", Sunni Muslims who they say have shot at them and who are in
some cases "Arab volunteers" who came to Iraq to fight the Americans.
Sheikh Aref says his supporters caught five, including an Afghan, a Syrian, a
Saudi and a Moroccan. "But we are for all the people," he says. "We have
Sunnis here with us. We eat the same food and pray together."
Exactly who does run Sadr City is a moot point. The gunmen appear to be
loyal to their individual mosques and they are in no mood, yet, to take on the
Americans. "We have security now in our area and we must have rebuilding
and our people must have work," Sheikh Aref says. "The Americans say they
came to free us and we are happy for that. But when will we have electricity
back and water for our people? If the Americans want to help us, who don't
they restore these things? America is a very powerful country and they can do
what they want."
Sheikh Aref and his fellow imams are prepared to share the US desire to
see the Arab "volunteers" expelled from Iraq. "America says it wants to fight
terrorism - so do we. But do they really want to liberate us and free us? Well,
the future will tell."
The slums of Sadr City are oral libraries of pain and torture. Just ask any
man where Saddam's main underground torture centre was and he will tell
you it was the complex at Baladiat or the Istiqbal centre beside Aqadmia.
Outside the Baladiat compound - it contained six entire residential blocks for
its secret policemen and their families - two men plead for information. A
brother and a father were taken there 20 years ago. Are they still there now?
Alas, only the Americans are now inside, complete with a spokesman who
recites lectures on the connections between Saddam Hussein and
He says he has found a photograph of Abu Abbas - the leader of the
so-called Palestine Liberation Front, which handed out cash to all
Palestinians killed by Israeli troops - shaking hands with an Iraqi
Republican Guard officer and a Palestinian flag coloured red, white, black
and green. And this was the American's proof. "Terrorism is terrorism," he
announced. But weren't the Palestinians fighting an occupation army? "I
wouldn't look to discuss that," he replied.
But the whole point is that the Shias of Sadr City support the Palestinians in
their struggle against Israel, and while no one vouchsafes support for Iran -
Sheikh Aref was educated in Baghdad and in the holy city of Najaf - most
listen to the Arabic service of Iranian radio and realise how close Iran came
to victory in its 1980-88 war against Iraq.
For the moment, however, Sadr City smiles at the West. "We want this
democracy that you speak of," Sheikh Aref says. "Our definition of
democracy? To give a person all the freedoms in all ways, on condition
these are according to moral values."
Another religious man - not an imam but an electrical management worker -
interrupts. "When you British came here, we had to make you go. Now the
Americans have come, but we don't want them to stay here."