Sadr City residents fear a cease-fire means more violence

Raheem Abdul Hassan, 42, stands with his brother-in-law Hussein Abd Sakran and Sakran's wife Suham Bresam. The couple took refuge in Abdul Hassan's home after fighting pushed them out of their home on the edge of Sadr City in Iraq.
Raheem Abdul Hassan, 42, stands with his brother-in-law Hussein Abd Sakran and Sakran's wife Suham Bresam. The couple took refuge in Abdul Hassan's home after fighting pushed them out of their home on the edge of Sadr City in Iraq. Leila Fadel / MCT

BAGHDAD — One day after an agreement between followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the Iraqi government to end more than six weeks of fighting, the streets in parts of the vast Shiite slum of Sadr City were deserted, amidst signs of a battle. Wires snaked out of potholes and from underneath tires - signs of past or future roadside bombs; abandoned pickup trucks, destroyed by airstrikes, littered the streets, and bullets or shrapnel scarred the houses.

Hussein Abd Sakran walked three hours, holding up a white flag, to escape southeast Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces battled Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, and took refuge inside the home of his brother-in-law, Raheem Abdul Hassan.

He arrived Saturday after most other residents had fled, in fear that the agreement that would allow Iraqi security Forces into the northeast district would bring more violence. It was a long route in order to get past the barricade the U.S. military is building to isolate the southern edge from the rest of the slum and avoid the gun battles in the southern parts of the area, he said.

Inside Abdul Hassan's home, furnished with colorful rugs and flimsy mattresses, Sakran and his wife hoped for calm after weeks of bombardment and gun battles, but they feared the worst is yet to come.

"We just want peace," Sakran's wife, Suham Bresam, said, her eyes heavy from sleepless nights. "This agreement happened and I was up all night from the gunshots and strikes."

Her home was in the middle of the fight on the edge of the district where U.S. forces are holed up in abandoned buildings and the Iraqi Army has set up checkpoints, and she hadn't left it in weeks. A nearly completed wall built by the U.S. military isolates the area, and her modest dwelling is scarred by bullets and shrapnel.

When Sakran tried to buy fuel from a nearby gasoline station he never made it. A roadside bomb exploded nearby and a newly built concrete wall blocked his path. The Iraqi Army started shooting in every direction, and he returned home scared, packed up his family and used a white flag to show he meant no harm as he walked away from the southern part of the slum. There was an additional reason: Iraqi forces had warned residents to evacuate.

Nowhere in Sadr City is safe from an air strike, Bresam said, but Abdul Hassan's home was safer than her own. At home, the Iraqi Army shoots erratically after a roadside bomb blast hit civilians, and when the Mahdi Army shoots rockets at U.S. aircraft, missiles rain on people's homes.

"It's just the civilians who get hurt," she said.

Before the battle began in late March, the area was peaceful, save for the sectarian killings that often happened. Bresam could go to the market, and her husband could drive to and from work easily. But they lived in an atmosphere of intimidation. When women were beaten by the Mahdi Army in her neighborhood or Sunnis killed, they objected quietly and never challenged the militia.

Just three days earlier three men were killed, spy was written on their forehead and they were left in the street. "We can't say anything," she said. "They'll accuse us of being with the Americans."

But they also fear the Iraqi Army. Videos captured on cell phones are being sent as messages from person to person. Abdul Hassan pulled out his phone to show a public hanging of three men. They stood on police trucks with nooses around their necks as a crowd of people looked on and then the trucks were driven away and the men were hung. Another showed men shot by the Iraqi Security Forces and then burned. In the background Iraqi soldiers spoke.

"Don't say in the name of God the most compassionate the most merciful. They are animals," one soldier said.

It was unclear where the videos came from or when they were shot.

Abdul Hassan said the videos were shot in the southern cities of Karbala and Nassiriyah, and he worried that the same would happen in Sadr City if the Iraqi Army had free reign.

"We haven't seen a solution that will give us peace," he said. "We don't want it to be like Karbala or Nassiriyah. We don't want people executed in the streets."

Nearby in northeast Sadr City, blocks of homes were empty and the usually crowded streets were abandoned. Only two homes still had families here, across from Sada, an open area where garbage and bodies shot by the Mahdi Army are dumped. Homes were destroyed by airstrikes and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia absorbed into the Iraqi army, were standing guard.

On Sunday the Sakrans changed their minds and returned home, hoping that things would quiet down, they could resume life and markets would reopen.

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