BAGHDAD – Just past the main checkpoint into Sadr City, children kick soccer balls at goals with new green nets, on fields where mounds of trash covered the ground last summer. A few blocks away, city workers plant palm trees by the road, while men gather at a cafe nearby to chatter and laugh.
Sadr City, once infamous as a fetid slum and symbol of Shiite subjugation, is recovering, with the help of $41 million in reconstruction funds from the Shiite-led government, all of it spent since May, according to Iraqi officials, and millions more in American assistance.
But as Shiite areas like Sadr City begin to thrive as self-enclosed fiefs, middle-class Sunni enclaves are withering into abandoned ghettos, starved of government services.
Many residents credit a Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, and its powerful political leader, the renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, for keeping the area safe enough to allow rebuilding.
Yet the Mahdi Army has also killed U.S. troops and has been linked to death squads preying on Sunnis, making the district a potential target as U.S. troops pour into Baghdad to enforce the new security plan.
The neighborhood, Baghdad’s largest Shiite area, is a web of contradictions, at once a test of whether its progress can be sustained, a flash point for sectarian tensions and the heart of the government’s political and military base.
“Sadr City is different because it has been left without services for 35 years,” said Hassan al-Shimmari, a Shiite member of parliament with the Fadila Party. “And with the presence of the Mahdi Army, and its agenda against the Americans – that is what makes it disturbing.”
Over three days of interviews in homes, businesses and political offices, residents described their community as tight-knit, often abused and increasingly isolated.
Abdul Karim Qasim, the prime minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, built the neighborhood as a public housing project for the poor. The rectangle of roughly 125,000 homes northeast of central Baghdad covered an area about half the size of Manhattan, with streets in a grid and simple brick homes of about 1,550 square feet.
These days, after decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein, many of the houses have been divided into multiple apartments and many more are crumbling.
Sadr City officials, including Rahim al-Daraji, the elected mayor, claim that more than 2 million people live there, almost all of them Shiites but with a smattering still of Sunnis and Kurds. If that number is right, the district has a higher population density than Calcutta or Hong Kong, which demographers say is unlikely, given the low-rise architecture.
Undeniably, Sadr City has grown over the past few months as families moved there from what Iraqis call hot zones, typically Sunni areas where violence has brought daily routines to a standstill. Schools are packed with children, rents have increased and the economy has come alive.
More surprising than the pyramids of fruit at the bustling market, near a park with new red fences, are the signs of leisure, like the new children’s bicycles with tassels on the handlebars and the silvery computer shops.
“Our neighborhood is much better than other areas,” said Hussail Allawi, 41, in a crowd of men smoking flavored tobacco, a pastime now rare in much of the city. “The people are cooperative. There are many volunteers, including the Mahdi Army, and we are doing our best.”
Bombings here have become less common than in other parts of Baghdad, though a coordinated series of explosions last fall killed 144 people. Residents and Sadr party officials said they felt more secure because the Mahdi Army kept watch at checkpoints and on the streets. As members of the community, militia members had an advantage.
“The Mahdi are more loyal because they feel they are protecting their own families,” said Ahmed Hashem, 30.
Sadr officials have seized on a simpler refrain: The Mahdi Army makes peace, not war.
Amtari described the militants as humanitarians, community volunteers and “a moral army” that checked vehicles and enforced the law.
Naeem al-Kabbi, a deputy mayor affiliated with the Sadr party, said the battles between U.S. troops and the militia in Najaf and Sadr City in 2004 amounted to a misunderstanding – though American troops said they had come under attack while doing little more than patrolling.
Seemingly determined to bleach clean the tarnished Mahdi image, Sadr officials said the militia’s members would disarm temporarily during the Baghdad security plan, even if Sunnis or Americans attacked.
“Whatever the provocation, with the surge against us or anything else, we will not kidnap anyone or take revenge by ourselves,” said Daraji, the mayor, who has been negotiating with U.S. and Iraqi officials over the role of the militia. “We will leave everything to the government.”
Sunni officials said Sadr officials had calculated that if they stayed quiet for the security plan, U.S. troops would eventually withdraw, giving Shiites even more freedom to exercise power. Salim Abdullah, a senior Sunni member of parliament, added that the security plan’s impact would be blunted in Sadr City because Shiite militias had infiltrated the Iraqi security forces, and could tip off Mahdi militants before raids began.
An open question is whether all the Mahdi fighters will obey orders not to fight. Some residents, who declined to give their names, described the Mahdi Army as a loose collection of often rival and rogue groups, and said arrests – on, say, an especially volatile anti-American street – could set off firefights with the arrestees’ families and neighbors, even if senior Mahdi commanders remained uninvolved.
But like the streets themselves, the community’s relationship with the militia seemed to be changing.
The Sadr organization, whose members once whipped people on the streets for selling alcohol, now works out of a centrally located office that has expanded from a squat one-story building into a small campus with fresh white paint and a covered courtyard. It has the feel of an American post office.
Residents said the building reflected the move from insurgent group to established player. After winning control of six ministries and 30 seats in parliament, residents said, the Sadrists have become a more traditionally political, less religious force, with leaders primarily interested in safety and power.
There is still a saying in Sadr City that if you anger the Mahdi, “They’ll throw you in the trunk,” a reference to their notorious gangsterism. And the U.S. military has clearly taken a harder line.
Citing evidence that militia members killed Americans and innocent civilians, U.S. troops have arrested or killed several Mahdi commanders in recent weeks as part of their efforts to pacify the capital.
In the latest move yesterda U.S. forces raided the Health Ministry and detained a deputy minister whom they accused of ferrying weapons and militants out of Sadr City in ambulances to thwart U.S. raids.
Some residents and officials acknowledge that their sprawling neighborhood includes men who contribute to Baghdad’s cycle of violence. One resident said few people had protested the recent increase in U.S. raids because it was clear that some members of the Mahdi Army cared less for the neighborhood than they did for killing and cash.
But in interviews, even critics of the Mahdi Army said that security and economics mattered most, and that as long as the militia kept the neighborhood safe enough to function, it could count on tacit support.
Allawi, the laborer at the cafe, said “the people are satisfied” with the spoils of Sadr control.