The Imam Al-Ridha neighborhood in north Baghdad is one of the city’s newest. Its houses have been hastily constructed of cinderblocks, and the streets are unpaved. There are fifty-five families here already, and more are on the way. At the entrance to the neighborhood a photo-mural depicts recent Shiite tragedies: the death of more than 1,000 people during a pilgrimage in 2005, the burial of martyrs during uprisings against the US military in 2004 and the end of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, with his military occupying a holy shrine.
The neighborhood itself is a testament to an event that is not depicted: All the families here have left their homes in other parts of central Iraq, fleeing escalating sectarian violence. “One of my neighbors, a Sunni, came to me and said, ‘I advise you to leave this area,'” says Abu Ali, who left his home of fifteen years in Taji, about forty-five minutes north of the capital, for Imam Al-Ridha two months ago, after his brother was abducted.
The problems in Taji, a mixed city with a Sunni majority, began shortly after the US invasion. “We thought the American soldiers came here to protect us,” Abu Ali says. “So when someone would plant a bomb or try to attack them, we would tell the Americans.” Providing aid to the occupier quickly led to retribution from the Sunni resistance. But the violence has escalated since December’s elections, and again following the destruction of the Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra in February. In the past two months tens of thousands have fled.
The mural at the entrance to Imam Al-Ridha also includes a picture of Muqtada al-Sadr. The neighborhood, and many others like it, is adjacent to tightly packed Sadr City, which is home to millions and comprises the cleric’s power base. “The only people who help us are the Mahdi Army,” says Naim Hussein, referring to the loosely organized militia that is loyal to Sadr and in the past two years has engaged in actions ranging from battling the US military to cleaning up garbage. “They bring us gas, water and food. We don’t have any money, we don’t have any jobs. We were farmers.”
Bordering Sadr City to the west is Shoala, another poor Shiite neighborhood that is nearly as large. In 2004 Sunni families fleeing the US military’s siege of Falluja came east to Shoala, where they received assistance from Sadrist mosques. Now the refugee tide has changed, and the 2004 cooperation between Sunni guerrillas and the Mahdi Army against the United States appears to have fully disintegrated. Since the Askariya bombing, the Sadr office in Shoala has registered more than 700 Shiite families seeking assistance, most of them in early April. The other major Sadr office, in Sadr City, has seen similar numbers.
In Chikook, another collection of cinderblock houses, this one on Shoala’s south border, families drive up in the pouring rain, all their belongings loaded into trucks and minivans. Some are staying in their cars until houses can be built, others are crowded into the dwellings of families that have been here longer. The people in Chikook say the Sadr office pointed them toward vacant lots and that the Mahdi Army provides protection for those who have recently settled here.