World / Social Issues

Islamic State attacks keep Baghdad's Sadr City Shiite enclave in constant state of mourning


Among the dozens killed when a truck bomb struck a crowded market last week in Baghdad’s Sadr City were two brothers, the only sons of Talib Jassum Issa, who got the news in a phone call just minutes after the attack.

“The truck had pulled right in front of the barbershop,” said Issa, as he wearily greeted neighbors and relatives who had come to pay their respects. “When they called me, they said, ‘Your sons are already dead.'”

Both were university graduates — 34-year-old Mushtaq Issa with a degree in communications and his 32-year-old brother, Dergahm, with a teaching degree. But neither could find work in their fields, so they ended up taking jobs at the barbershop. That’s where they were when the bomb struck.

“Their skin was burned to black, like they had been charred,” the elder Issa said, struggling to find words to describe the carnage. “Terrible,” he added, lowering his head.

The May 11 attack marked the beginning of a wave of violence that has claimed the lives of more than 200 Iraqis in and around Baghdad over the past week, leaving hundreds of families like Issa’s shattered.

A sprawling, impoverished Shiite district of some 2.5 million people, Sadr City has witnessed some of the worst violence to hit Baghdad as Islamic State fighters have increasingly turned to attacks on civilian targets in the face of the extremist group’s mounting battlefield losses in Iraq.

Along its main thoroughfares, fresh black posters bear the names and images of the more than 80 Sadr City residents killed in the past week alone. The single deadliest attack in Baghdad this year was in the district, a double car bombing in late February that killed more than 70 and wounded more than 100.

Sadr City’s narrow streets were still choked with traditional mourning tents for those killed in the May 11 attack when the latest bombing hit Tuesday, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens more. As with earlier attacks, local Shiite militiamen quickly fanned out across the district, but no measures were taken to permanently improve security.

At one of the main checkpoints leading into the neighborhood, a pair of Iraqi soldiers nonchalantly waved cars through. Each was holding a “explosive detector” wand, an instrument repeatedly discredited as ineffective but which Iraqi security forces continue to use at checkpoints nationwide.

Originally built in the late 1950s to house poor Shiite migrants from the countryside, Sadr City today accounts for a third of Baghdad’s population, its streets a dense jumble of shops, market stalls, simple homes and generator blocks.

Renamed Saddam City during Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule, it became a bastion of support for the family of powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, it was renamed Sadr City and became the central recruiting ground for al-Sadr’s Mahdi army, the fierce Shiite militia that fought multiple battles with U.S. forces from 2003 to 2011.

Those same fighters have now been resurrected as the Saraya Salam, or Peace Brigades, to fight the Islamic State group.

The deep support for al-Sadr — a figure often at odds with Iraq’s political leadership — among Sadr City residents is one of the reasons the district is frequently targeted by Islamic State militants, analysts and government officials say.

Attacks in Sadr City have a particularly destabilizing effect in Baghdad, stirring up simmering resentment among a population that has long felt economically and socially neglected. Al-Sadr’s supporters turned out in the thousands for anti-government protests that peaked last month with the storming of Baghdad’s highly fortified Green Zone.

Sadr City’s residents are largely Baghdad’s impoverished Shiite underclass, people kept out of government jobs and business opportunities by a patronage system that largely controls access to opportunity and mobility in Iraq.

Mushtaq and Dergham Issa were prime examples. After months of searching for work following college graduation, they eventually took jobs at a barbershop, a move they thought would be a temporary fix but that quickly turned permanent.

As mourners shuffled into the family’s simple three-room home on Tuesday, the elder Issa said he blamed the Iraqi leadership for failing to prevent the violence that claimed his sons’ lives.

“I have a family and a house, so my responsibility is to take care of my house and family,” he said. “It’s the same with the government. It’s their responsibility to protect the Iraqi people. If they can’t, then they should step down and make space for people who can.”

Hana and Shafan Issa, the brothers’ widows, sat at the back of the house with the other female mourners and children. Mushtaq had five children, the youngest 3 months old. Dergham had none.

Mushtaq’s widow, Hana, spoke in fits and bursts, railing against the government one minute and reciting verses from the Quran the next. Sobbing, she refused to hold her infant son when he was handed to her. A relative stepped in and rocked the boy in a corner of the small bedroom.

“These brothers were the good people,” said Saad Sudani, a cousin. “The whole neighborhood knew them, everyone loved them.”

Many families in the neighborhood cut the traditional mourning period short after the May 11 attack, worried that a funeral, where large crowds gather, would itself become a target for another bombing.

Issa said if security doesn’t improve, Baghdad can expect to see increased civil unrest this summer as temperatures climb.

“Every time these explosions happen people get more upset with the government and they hold more protests,” Issa said, noting the anti-government rally by hundreds of demonstrators demanding the interior minister resign after last week’s attack.

“But if we have to, we will do more than just protest,” Issa added, warning residents were ready rise up against the government and take security into their own hands.