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In Saddam City, signs of hope

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In this neighborhood called Saddam City, theft hardly seems worth the effort because there is almost nothing to steal. People have little food or water, few belongings, no electricity. They have, though, a ton of automatic weapons and just enough hope - optimism would be too strong a word - that they are willing to shoot at people, and they do.

Saddam City has the highest concentration of poor people in Iraq, somewhere around 3 million souls who live little better than the sickly horses and donkeys that stand in the heat like statues under a sun that beats down mercilessly.

The animals stand next to, and sometimes in, the steaming piles of garbage that line the wide strip of dirt that marks the neighborhood's borders, that tells visitors they are entering a dangerous neighborhood filled with desperate people.

Residents have been firing those rifles because they have had no hope for decades and are unwilling to lose the little they have gained with the arrival of Americans. And gunmen, maybe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's fedayeen, have been shooting people who live here, women and children being no exception, trying to steal that hope.

Saddam City is one giant slum that seems to sprawl forever, but each gutterless dirt road leads to malnourished children, to worried mothers battling clouds of black flies as they scavenge through piles of trash for fuel or food, to frustrated men who have been beaten down for more than two decades and now see a better future ahead but with gunmen standing in their way.

The people who live here are Shiites, members of the Muslim sect that Hussein, a Sunni, chose to weaken to make himself appear stronger. When he felt particularly threatened, the security forces that monitored this place wielded torture and murder with as much thought as writing parking tickets, and no one but these people gave it a look.

"Saddam Hussein provided only enough food so we could survive to serve him, not to live," said Fadhil Muhsin al-Zurgani, who is 60, gray-haired and skinny, and nearly blind behind eyeglasses round and thick.

"He made the dog hungry so it will follow him."

That Hussein named this neighborhood after himself seemingly had to result from a plan to add insult to the other forms of cruelty he had mastered, because he could not have been proud of the setting.

Saddam City comprises about 9.3 square miles, about one-tenth the size of Baghdad proper, but is home to half its population and most of its hell. People are crammed inside tiny houses like mice in a hole, and the smell of sewage wafts everywhere.

This area used to be called Thawra, or revolution. Most Shiites in Iraq are in the south, and people were drawn here with the promise of sharing in the riches of Iraq's oil. They were lied to.

Residents shed the name of their neighborhood soon after U.S. forces drove the Iraqi military from the holes that still mark the neighborhood, making it look all the more like the moon. The people here now refer to their neighborhood as Sadr City, named for the Shiite leader Muhammad al-Sadr who was killed by the government in the late 1990s.

That is one of the signs of hope.

Over the past week, gunmen have arrived here sometimes during the day and sometimes at night, unseen. They fire weapons at whatever moves, then try to get away.

So men and boys have been patrolling the streets with their Kalashnikov rifles fully loaded, have set up their own roadblocks leading into the city, using bricks or stones or bedsprings or pieces of wood with spikes pounded into them.

They stop visitors at gunpoint to interrogate them about their intentions, where they live, why they are coming into their neighborhood if they do not live here, because there is really no reason to enter if not to return to a crumbling mud-brick house, likely to be filled with a dozen people living cheek to jowl in no more than four rooms.

Sometimes there are arguments at the checkpoints, and a rifle shot and another death seem only a word away, so people are advised to drive slowly and to be careful and not to move hands or arms too quickly.

On Monday, residents shot two men, maybe three, depending on who is telling the story, and maybe they were Hussein's thugs, or maybe they were foreign fighters. They would have seen children playing soccer, barefoot, in dirt and garbage and the waste of wobbly horses and exhausted donkeys and packs of mangy dogs.

The outsiders who were shot, whoever they were, were taken to the Hijja Alqaiem mosque and locked in rooms, then they were taken to a hospital for treatment and then moved to another, the Thawra Alam Hospital.

"We have to fight with everything we have to defend our families," said Sheik Russohh al-Gharrawi, who has been using the scratchy amplifiers fixed atop his mosque to implore his followers to grab their rifles. He set the minimum age for patrolling with a Kalashnikov at 15, but many of the boys who carry the guns strapped over their backs like schoolbags appear under 12.

At the hospital where the men were being held, officials gave differing views about the identity of the wounded gunmen. But with so much lawlessness, so much looting and stealing, and so many boys not old enough to shave but old enough to curl a finger around a trigger of a rifle that can kill a dozen people with one pull, it is possible that the men who were shot meant no harm at all.

"We cannot be sure with all that is going on," said Sheik Ali al-Said, whose hired gunmen guard the hospital. "There is no security here, so people get shot - bad people and good people."

"I don't know who they are, and I don't care who they are," said Dr. Mowafak Gorea, who runs the hospital and issues orders to clean up blood in an elevator, then laments what is going on in Iraq, especially in Saddam City.

"In the past three days, I have received 12 people shot," he said outside the door of the men wounded by residents, which was guarded by four men with rifles. "I will treat anybody, even Americans."

In a sense, it hardly mattered who the wounded outsiders were, because of the uncertainty about just about everything here, all the chaos. The war in Baghdad is not over, and that is proved by those gunshots and by the firing of tanks, which punctuate conversations all day and night and rock the ground like violent thunder.

Except for when the weapons are fired within a couple of blocks, it is impossible to tell how close they are. Baghdad has been burning for more than a week in different areas, with spirals of smoke rising in a ring around the center of the city.

An indication of the desperation: People have stolen ducks from the zoo to eat, tried to get a camel out, too, but left it for dead when they could not coax him out with electrical wire tied around its neck.

Nobody seems to know when the electricity will return or when the streets will be safe enough for aid workers to deliver food and water and medical supplies, and nowhere are they needed more than in Saddam City.

What seems clear, given the kids, the weapons, the grudges, the thieves, the paranoia and the constant danger is that more people, good and bad, as the sheik said, will be killed before there is anything close to peace.

The people in Saddam City seem to know this. It took Hussein nearly 24 years, three major wars, a streak of cruelty and unmatched vanity to create such desperate conditions, and the U.S. military could not be expected to turn it around in a week of occupation.

But bullets travel quickly. So residents have become frustrated that U.S. troops seem more willing to launch a big bang at a building if they suspect a sniper is inside than they have been to bring order to the streets, not that they could.

And these people are, despite their hope, more desperate than before the Americans got here, because at least then some of them had salaries, maybe only $3 a day or so, but it was something. Now they do not work.

This is frustration from people who welcomed U.S. troops with paper flowers, real ones not existing, and who still greet Americans with, "Thank you, liberators," and with handshakes that seem partly prompted by a curiosity to see what Americans, who may as well have descended from a different planet, feel like to the touch.

"We are glad the Americans are in Baghdad, but please tell them to come inside here," said Younes Abrahim, 28, father of a 1 1/2 -year-old girl who had a single egg for breakfast, which makes lunch a long way off. "You can see we need help."

The need was impossible not to see.

At the market, the tables - splintered and filthy - stood mostly empty. On some sat rotting tomatoes, on some rested greens, on one of them two unhealthy chickens that looked as though they would die on their own if they were not killed soon for somebody's meal.

Dirty laundry hung from dirty houses in a dirty breeze. Metal grates blocked the doors of businesses that have not yet opened. Little girls stood with their backs against walls, looking around at nothing. Little boys played soccer with a deflated basketball, no net to shoot for, no goals.

A 13-year-old boy named Sadiq walked aimlessly in the dirt, a cloud of dust following his feet, his green sweat pants torn, his Mickey Mouse shirt three sizes too small. "I am afraid of the fedayeen," he said, and the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire sounded in the distance.

A woman named Um Abbas, 38 years old and with 10 children to feed, shuffled along, eyes to the ground, looking for wood so she could build a fire to make bread. "God will feed them," she said.

And in a garbage heap, holding a burlap sack, was a woman known by the neighbors only as Dunia, whom they believe to be about 50. She is deaf and cannot speak except with her hands, and even then only a 16-year-old boy named Mazin Zergawi claimed to understand what she was saying.

She was not married and had no children but lived with relatives. She was rooting through the garbage because she knew the animals did the same and that they often left their waste there. She was collecting it because wood was too hard to find and she needed to make a fire. She knew animal waste burns.

She put a hand to her breast. Then she put her fists side by side with pinkie fingers up and separated the hands and rejoined them. Then she pointed toward the sky, and a noise came from her mouth but not words.

The translation, according to the boy: "I have only God."

Down the road, at the Ministry of Trade, smoke poured between the bars that had been over windows, now knocked out. Maybe the Americans; maybe the looters. Nobody gave it a look.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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