In Revolution City

After three weeks of war, Saddam City looked to me like an Arab version of "Blade Runner." Donkey carts and rattletrap taxis trundled through the vast Baghdad slum last week, crammed with anything that could be removed from the capital's abandoned ministries. My car inched past trash-choked alleys, burned-out vehicles and barricades thrown up by hard-eyed local vigilantes guarding their own neighborhoods from pillaging mobs. Even at the height of Saddam Hussein's power, his underlings seldom dared venture into the district that had been renamed for the dictator. Long before the U.S. invasion, this place was a revolution just waiting for a final provocation.

There is no law in Saddam City. The closest thing to central authority is inside Saddam General Hospital, the only major medical center in Baghdad that has not been stripped virtually bare by looters. Residents now call it Revolution City Hospital, --from the district's pre-Saddam name. When the bombing began on March 20, the hospital's staff begged a prominent local religious leader for his protection. In the weeks that followed, Sheik Khadim and his armed followers kept guard. At first their priority was to protect the facilities from the ruthless Saddam Fedayeen, the militia that was commandeering mosques, clinics and other civilian sanctuaries. Last week the pro-Saddam thugs turned their weapons against crowds of local residents in a final assault against civic order. They were instructed to kill and bomb civilians in Saddam City to create chaos, says the hospital's director general, Moafaq Gorea. Now the hospital is the only refuge from the anarchy outside.

The key to Iraq's future is right here. The looting and street crime are likely to die down soon; late last week Baghdad police and U.S. military leaders announced plans for joint patrols to restore order. But the political problems will almost surely persist. The struggling inhabitants of Saddam City--almost 2 million of them--are Shiites, like nearly two thirds of all Iraqis. For three decades they have been crushed by the Sunni-dominated dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Now their first concern is to survive with little food or money and no social services. But many people are already trying to envision the country's next government. They could choose a secular democracy, like Turkey to the north, or a strict Islamic state, like the Shiites of Iran to the east. Either way, the decision will be largely in the hands of Iraq's Shiite majority when the chaos finally ends.

If it ends. No matter how deeply most Iraqis may wish for safety and comfort for their loved ones, a few people apparently want political unrest to continue. Last week a prominent Shiite leader, Abdel Majid al-Khoei, was killed in the holy city of Najaf shortly after returning home from exile. He was at Iraq's most revered Shiite shrine, the Imam Ali Mosque, trying to negotiate peace between two rival Shiite factions, when a mob hacked him to death for reasons still not fully explained. They reportedly dragged his corpse through the streets. "They cut his body to pieces!" says another Shiite leader. "To pieces! Which is scary and shameful." The incident underscored the threat of political violence and reprisal killings in Iraq. A U.S. Marine in Baghdad, barely days after receiving an exuberant welcome from Iraqis in the city's streets, could only shake his head: "I sure as hell hope this ain't going to wind up another Mogadishu."

That fear is spreading. One evening last week in another largely Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, a pair of strangers reportedly prowled the streets. They wore headbands emblazoned with the name hizbullah. The two armed men accosted male residents of the neighborhood and demanded to see identification papers. When the strangers found two men who had belonged to the Iraqi Army, they killed the soldiers where they stood. Ali Majid Ismail, a Shiite who lives a block away from the spot, says he thinks the intruders were Iranians. There was serious concern that the incident might be only the start of a series of reprisal killings in the capital. Recently, Iran has been trying to revive the long-dormant opposition party Iraqi Hizbullah.

No one can say what most Iraqis want. After generations of dictatorship, many may not know themselves. Even the militants come in many guises. There's a substantial number of foreign Islamists who came in to support Saddam against the Americans. Many of the young Shiites of Saddam City, however, care more about revenge than about politics. As a guiding spirit they claim the memory of Muhammad Sadeq Sadr, a Shiite leader who was murdered by the regime in 1999. Now they want only to retaliate against Saddam's torturers, jailers and executioners. Nevertheless, the young men provide fertile ground for the foreign hard-liners and local clerics who dream of an Islamic state. And the current violence only worsens the public's resentment of the American invaders.

But will Iraqis cooperate with American soldiers trying to impose order? Anyone entering Saddam City's central plaza is confronted by a huge mural. Until a few days ago it said welcome to Saddam city. Someone has blacked out the dictator's name, replacing it with the spray-painted name of the martyred Shiite cleric. Welcome to Sadr city, says the sign. At the hospital nearby an American tank rammed into the wall last week in search of suspected Fedayeen. A Marine colonel later offered his apologies for the damage. "I told him to knock next time," says hospital director Gorea, a Chaldean Christian. The hospital's protector, Sheik Khadim, has promised to hand over any captured Fedayeen to the Americans. "Yesterday he had four or five to give," says Gorea.

Among patients and their families at the hospital, not everyone is so tolerant. "We reject the Americans," says Ahmed Tahar. "They're strangers." He's standing near the bed of his 18-year-old brother, whose left arm and shoulder are swathed in bloody bandages. The young man was playing football when a U.S. bomb fell close by, Tahar says. When U.S. forces are gone, what form of government does Tahar want for Iraq? "We want an Islamic government," he says, "but not like Iran." Like what other country, then? Tahar pauses to think. The question seems never to have occurred to him. Finally the answer comes: "Like Abu Dhabi." So Iraq should have an emir? "No, except without an emir," Tahar says. He seems relieved when I finally stop asking questions and leave the ward.

Join the Discussion