BAGHDAD (Associated Press) – Khalil Ibrahim’s four sons were among thousands of followers of a powerful Shiite cleric who staged a sit-in outside Iraq’s parliament after storming the building last week in a stunning move that pushed the country into a new era of political instability.
He says Ibrahim stands behind them all the way – as are practically all of his neighbors in Sadr City, the huge Baghdad neighborhood populated by millions of largely impoverished Shiites and which is the heart of support for cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Every home inside the area’s concrete jungle has members participating in the sit-in, 70-year-old Ibrahim told The Associated Press on Thursday. “This time we know there will be change, and we are confident of it,” he said.
Sadr derives his political weight in large part from their seemingly endless support. The cleric’s words sparked meticulously organized mass protests at various times in the past, bringing Baghdad to a standstill and disrupting the political process. Many in Sadr City declared their devotion to the cleric, rejecting allegations of corruption against his movement.
They are drawn to his religious rhetoric, promise of long-overdue change and recognition of a society that is among Iraq’s poorest.
Most Sadr City residents complain about inadequate basic services, including electricity in the scorching summer heat – temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday. The majority of those who spoke to the AP did not complete the study, and those who said they could not find work.
Motivated by the protest calls from the Sadr party, they swept the parliament on Saturday, before withdrawing to the sit-in outside the building. Their gathering prevents Sadr’s Iran-backed political opponents from moving forward with forming a government. Al-Sadr, whose party won the most seats in the last elections, was demanding a majority government that would have ousted these rivals.
The standoff extends into an unprecedented political stalemate 10 months after the federal election.
The cleric calls on his followers to act by invoking a powerful blend of religion, particularly by invoking the sacrifices of Imam Hussein, a respected figure in Shiite Islam. It also touches on the long history of Sadr City as a center of mass social demonstration, where feelings of repression and revolution deepened.
This history dates back to the establishment of the region shortly after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958 by Abd al-Karim Qasim.
Qasim, which at the time was called the City of Revolution, built settlements for immigrants from southern Iraq, many of whom were violently stripped of their lands and suffered from extreme poverty. Its original five sectors would grow over the following decades to 100 sectors with a population of 2.5 million.
Promises to develop the region have not come to fruition throughout Iraq’s turbulent modern history.
With successive regime changes, the area fell into neglect and created an urban underclass isolated from the rest of the society in Baghdad. Under Saddam Hussein, the region became a center of Shiite resistance. After the 2003 US-led invasion, it was renamed Sadr City after Sadr’s father.
Al-Sadr, in a speech on Wednesday, directed his followers to continue the sit-in and called for early elections, the dissolution of parliament and the amendment of the constitution.
In Abraham’s house, the demands are simpler. They want to own a home and find a job. Ibrahim’s sons have casual day laborers only. Ibrahim’s eldest son is 23 years old, and none of his sons made it past primary school.
All of them, 12 people, live in a house where rent takes most of their income. This is despite the fact that Ibrahim worked all his life as a guard outside the Ministry of Education.
Hamida, Ibrahim’s wife, desperately desires to own a home of her own.
“We filled out applications for government housing, we filled in applications for jobs, but nothing worked,” she said.
Only after that, the electricity went out. “Here it is again,” she sighed.
Sadr’s support, which extends into parts of southern Iraq, has shown signs of erosion. Although the party was the largest vote-taker in the October elections, its total votes were less than a million, lower than in the previous election.
The party has been part of multiple governments over the years, yet Sadr City has seen little improvement. Despite being portrayed as a dispossessed hero, his party has an extensive network of civil servants recruited across Iraqi state institutions willing to do its bidding. Contractors dealing with ministries under his control complained of harassment and threats from members of his party.
Critics accuse the cleric of using his followers as pawns by invoking the legacy of his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, a highly respected Shiite religious figure killed by Saddam’s regime in the 1990s.
His supporters in Sadr City rushed to his defense, saying opponents in power had obstructed his agenda.
Many said his calls to protest provided them with a goal beyond the monotony of their poverty-stricken lives. The protest call spreads from the Sadr Party offices to the tribal leaders who pass it on to their members.
Several protesters who stormed Parliament on Saturday said this was their first glimpse into the halls of power, where they are rarely welcomed.
“I saw the big buildings and the beautiful rooms, and I thought how could this exist in the same city I am in?” said Muhammad Alaa, a grocer in Sadr City. “Aren’t we human too?”
Pictures of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, hang outside nearly every door in Sadr City. Ashura commemorates, next Monday, the anniversary of his death, and Iraqis usually march in their thousands to commemorate the day in the holy city of Karbala.
Sadr’s letters are full of references to Hussein’s sacrifices and calls to rise up against injustice. Al-Sadr said in a Saturday speech that he is against bloodshed, but “reform only comes through sacrifice,” referring to the imam’s model.
echo comparison among his followers. A portrait of Imam Hussein shines in Ibrahim’s modest living room.
Ibrahim said: “Imam Hussein called for reform and revolution, and now our leaders are also.” “Of course, some can ignore that, but we can’t.”