Wednesday August 17th, 2022 1:26AM

In Baghdad's Sadr City, cleric's support underpins protests

By The Associated Press
Related Articles
  Contact Editor

BAGHDAD (AP) — Khalil Ibrahim’s four sons are among thousands of followers of an influential Shiite cleric staging a sit-in outside Iraq’s parliament after storming the building last week in a stunning move that threw the country into a new era of political instability.

Ibrahim is behind them all the way, he says — as are practically all his neighbors in Sadr City, the huge Baghdad district of millions of largely impoverished Shiites that is the heart of support for the cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Every house within the district’s concrete jungle has members participating in the sit-in, the 70-year-old Ibrahim told The Associated Press on Thursday. “This time we know there will be change, we are sure of it,” he said.

Al-Sadr derives his political weight largely from their seemingly unending support. His word has spurred meticulously organized mass protests at various times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a halt and disrupting the political process. Many in Sadr City proclaim their devotion to al-Sadr, dismissing allegations of corruption against his movement.

They are drawn by his religious rhetoric and the promise of long-sought change and recognition for a community that is among Iraq’s most destitute.

Most in Sadr City complain of inadequate basic services, including electricity in the scorching summer heat — temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) Thursday. The majority who spoke to the AP did not finish school, and those who did say they can’t find work.

Prompted by protest calls by al-Sadr's party, they overran parliament on Saturday, before pulling back to the sit-in outside the building. Their gathering is preventing al-Sadr’s Iranian-backed political rivals from forging ahead with government formation. Al-Sadr, whose party won the largest number of seats in the last election, had been demanding a majority government that would have squeezed out his rivals.

The standoff extends an unprecedented political impasse, 10 months since the elections. On Friday, hundreds of thousands heeded al-Sadr's call yet again, gathering for a mass prayer in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

The cleric elicits a powerful combination of religion, in particular by evoking the sacrifices of Imam Hussein, a revered figure in Shiite Islam. He also taps into Sadr City’s long history as an epicenter of mass social demonstration where sentiments of oppression and revolution run deep.

This history dates back to the district’s founding soon after the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy by Abdel Karim Qassim.

Called Revolution City back then, Qassim built settlements for migrants from southern Iraq, many of whom were violently dispossessed of land and suffered immense poverty. The area's five original sectors would grew over the following decades to 100 sectors, with 2.5 million residents.

However, promises to develop the neighborhood never came to fruition throughout Iraq’s turbulent modern history and it fell into neglect, creating an urban underclass segregated from the rest of Baghdad society.

Under Saddam Hussein, it became a center for Shiite resistance. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City after al-Sadr’s father.

In a speech Wednesday, al-Sadr instructed his followers to carry on with the sit-in and called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and amendments to the constitution.

In the Ibrahim household, the demands are simpler. They want to own a house and find work. Ibrahim’s sons only have irregular day laborer jobs. His eldest is 23, and none went past primary school.

The entire family — 12 persons in all — live in a house where the rent takes up most their incomes, even though Ibrahim worked his entire life as a guard outside the Education Ministry.

Hamida, Ibrahim’s wife, desperately wants to own a house of their own. “We filled out applications for government housing, we filled out applications for jobs, but nothing worked,” she said.

As she spoke, the electricity cut out. “There it goes again,” she sighed.

More recently, al-Sadr’s support, which extends to parts of southern Iraq, has shown signs of eroding. Though the party was the biggest vote-getter in October’s elections, its total votes were under a million, less than in previous elections.

The party has been part of multiple governments over the years, yet Sadr City has seen little improvement. Despite his portrayal as a hero the dispossessed, his party has a vast network of civil servant appointees across Iraq’s state institutions, ready to do its bidding. Contractors doing business with the ministries under his control have complained of harassment and threats from his party members.

Critics accuse the cleric of using his followers as pawns by evoking the legacy of his father, Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr a highly respected Shiite religious figure killed by Saddam’s regime in the 1990s.

In Sadr City, his supporters are quick to defend him, saying his political opponents have obstructed his agenda.

Many said his calls to protest gave them purpose beyond the monotony of their poverty-stricken lives. The protest call is disseminated from Sadr’s party offices down to tribal leaders, who pass it on to their members.

Many protesters who stormed the parliament last Saturday said it was their first glimpse of the halls of power, where they are seldom welcome.

“I saw the big buildings, the beautiful rooms, and I thought ‘How can this exist in the same city where I am struggling?’” said Mohammed Alaa, a grocer in Sadr City. “Aren’t we human also?”

Portraits of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, hang outside almost every door in Sadr City. Ashura, next Monday, commemorates his killing, and Iraqis typically march in the thousands to mark the day in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Al-Sadr’s messaging is suffused with references to Hussein’s sacrifice and calls to rise up against oppression. In Saturday’s speech, al-Sadr said he was against bloodshed, but added that “reform comes only through sacrifice,” pointing to the example of the imam.

The comparison resonates among his followers. A portrait of Imam Hussein glitters in Ibrahim’s modest living room.

“Imam Hussein called for reform and revolution, and now our leaders are also,” Ibrahim said. “Of course, some can ignore that, but we can’t.”

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP National News, AP Online National News, Top General short headlines, AP Online Headlines - Washington, AP Online Congress News
© Copyright 2022
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Far-right mayor wins GOP primary for Nashville US House seat
Far-right candidate Andy Ogles has won Tennessee’s crowded Republican primary for an open congressional seat in Nashville
2:16AM ( 23 minutes ago )
In Baghdad's Sadr City, cleric's support underpins protests
Residents of the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City say they they support an influential Shiite cleric who called on thousands of his followers to storm Iraq's parliament
2:15AM ( 24 minutes ago )
Banksy painting sprayed in West Bank resurfaces in Tel Aviv
A long-lost painting by the British graffiti artist Banksy has resurfaced in a swank art gallery in downtown Tel Aviv
2:14AM ( 25 minutes ago )
Associated Press (AP)
EXPLAINER: Why is insulin so expensive and difficult to cap?
Reining in the soaring prices of insulin has thus far been elusive in Congress, although Democrats say they’ll try again — as part of their economic package that focuses on health and climate
12:40AM ( 2 hours ago )
Washington town evacuated, some homes burned in wildfire
A small town in Washington state was evacuated due to a fast-moving fire that burned a half-dozen homes as crews in California made progress  against the state’s deadliest and largest wildfire of the year
12:21AM ( 2 hours ago )
Tougher IRS enforcement central to Dem economic package
One of Washington’s favorite punching bags, the Internal Revenue Service, may finally get the resources it’s been asking Congress for if Democrats get their economic package focused on energy and health care over the finish line
12:18AM ( 2 hours ago )
AP National News
Republicans to announce site of 2024 national convention
Republicans are to announce whether the 2024 national convention where the party’s presidential nominee will be officially named will be held in Milwaukee or Nashville
11:47PM ( 2 hours ago )
US to issue ID to migrants awaiting deportation proceedings
U.S. immigration authorities are planning to issue photo ID cards to immigrants in deportation proceedings
11:45PM ( 2 hours ago )
Democrats say they've reached agreement on economic package
Senate Democrats say they have reached an accord on changes to their marquee economic legislation, clearing the major hurdle to pushing one of President Joe Biden’s leading election-year priorities through the chamber in coming days
11:43PM ( 2 hours ago )
AP Online National News
Trump ally takes on Walker protégé in Wis. governor's race
Republican hopes to reclaim a crucial governor’s seat in swing-state Wisconsin this year long appeared to rest on Rebecca Kleefisch
12:08AM ( 2 hours ago )
Biden, Republicans spar over impact of Dems' economic plan
Democrats call it the “Inflation Reduction Act.”
11:47PM ( 2 hours ago )
In S. Korea, Pelosi avoids public comments on Taiwan, China
After infuriating China over her trip to Taiwan, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has met South Korean political leaders in Seoul
8:41PM ( 5 hours ago )
AP Online Headlines - Washington
Dems consider changes to economic bill, weekend votes ahead
Democrats are considering reshaping their economic bill's proposed taxes on the wealthy and huge corporations, and possibly adding billions for the West’s historic drought
5:54PM ( 8 hours ago )
Arizona county replaces elections boss after ballot problems
Officials in an Arizona county that weathered issues during Tuesday's primaries have replaced their elections director and said he is no longer employed
5:48PM ( 8 hours ago )
US keeping ex-prison chief as top adviser after rocky tenure
The federal Bureau of Prisons is keeping its former director on the payroll as an adviser to his successor, at least for a short time
5:04PM ( 9 hours ago )
AP Online Congress News
Far-right mayor wins GOP primary for Nashville US House seat
Far-right candidate Andy Ogles has won Tennessee’s crowded Republican primary for an open congressional seat in Nashville
2:16AM ( 23 minutes ago )
Banksy painting sprayed in West Bank resurfaces in Tel Aviv
A long-lost painting by the British graffiti artist Banksy has resurfaced in a swank art gallery in downtown Tel Aviv
2:14AM ( 25 minutes ago )
Fire at music pub in eastern Thailand kills at least 13
Police and rescue workers say at least 13 people were killed and dozens injured when a fire broke out early Friday morning at a crowded music pub in eastern Thailand
2:08AM ( 31 minutes ago )
Trump ally Kari Lake wins GOP primary for Arizona governor
Former television news anchor Kari Lake has won the Republican primary for Arizona governor
2:07AM ( 33 minutes ago )
US, Russia, China take part in talks with SE Asian nations
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has joined foreign ministers of Russia and China at a meeting with top diplomats from Southeast Asia, at a time when the global powers are riven by tensions
1:29AM ( 1 hour ago )