AP, Mar. 28, 2003
HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Thousands of shoppers were out on the streets of Saddam City on Friday; traffic on the streets was bumper to bumper. Life seemed normal in this down at the heels neighborhood of Baghdad, home to 1.5 million Shiite Muslims. For now, at least, there’s no sign of a Shiite revolt against Saddam Hussein.
Several miles away, worshippers went to the shrine of Mousa Kazem, a revered Shiite saint. They brought newborns to be blessed and prayed for everything from money to peace of mind to heavenly rewards for deceased loved ones.
Though Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq’s estimated 26 million people, they have traditionally been ruled by the country’s minority Sunni Muslim sect, of which Saddam is a member. The rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the seventh century, when the two sects fell out over the heir to Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.
Iraq’s exiled Shiite leaders say they’ll want a share of power proportionate to their numbers in a post-Saddam Iraq.
But dashing hopes in Washington that Iraq’s Shiites would take advantage of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to rise up against Saddam, they have shown no sign of revolt.
“A believer is never stung from the same pit twice,” says Shiite taxi driver Abu Haider, citing a popular proverb to explain the lack of action.
“We will sit and watch to see how it all pans out,” said the 35-year-old father of two.
Iraq’s Shiites revolted after Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, hoping U.S. troops still inside Iraq and in neighboring Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would come to their aid. They didn’t, and the uprising was ruthlessly crushed within days by Saddam’s army.
But today’s Iraq is a different place – it’s an Arab nation invaded and a Muslim people attacked.
This time the United States is an aggressor, not the superpower that liberated an Arab nation, Kuwait, from an illegal occupier, Iraq. It’s also a power that’s associated in the minds of Iraqis with a bias in favor of Israel during 2 1/2 years of violence against the Palestinians.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld held out hope Thursday that Baghdad’s Shiites opposed to Saddam would stage an uprising against the regime, without the need for U.S. ground forces to invade the city.
So far in the U.S.-led campaign, most of the fighting has taken place in southern Iraq, where Shiites are the overwhelming majority. But there has not been even a hint of Shiite unrest, even in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.
Up to half of Baghdad’s 5 million inhabitants are Shiites and Saddam City, on the eastern flank of the Iraqi capital, is thought to be the place most likely to provide the spark of a Shiite revolt.
In Saddam City, streets are strewn with rubbish, houses are shabby and most residents are poor. And although life seemed normal on Friday, with hardly a single store shuttered, authorities did not appear to be in the mood to take a chance.
Like virtually elsewhere in Baghdad, armed militiamen from Saddam’s ruling Baath party and security forces patrolled the streets and manned sandbagged positions.
Several miles away, in the Al-Kazimiah district, security was even more intense around the shrine of Mousa Kazem, a revered Shiite imam murdered in 818 A.D. by the fabled Muslim Caliph Harun al-Rasheed.
Plainclothes security men milled around the white marble plaza of the ornate shrine, its walls tiled with ceramics and ceiling covered with mirrors.
As men and women venerated the saint, touching the shrine’s silver bars and the mosque doors, the security men kept a watchful eye. Outside, armed security men gathered around a sandbagged fighting position.
Prints of a fatwa, or a religious decree, signed by five senior Shiite clerics and calling on followers of the faith to remain calm were pasted everywhere in the shrine complex.
“Be united in the face of this flagrant aggressor,” it said. “Respect public order and show tolerance and patience and don’t succumb to the devil’s temptations and rush into aggressive actions to satisfy personal grudges or achieve illegal gains.”
But such appeals may be falling on deaf ears among segments of a Shiite population seething over memories of the 1991 uprising and the brutality with which it was put down. And, like other Iraqis, they also grumble about some of Saddam’s policies.
“One war after another, what for?” asked Abu Haidar, showing rare courage in speaking critically of the regime to an outsider.
“Why do we have to cope with all this? My 5-year-old son is unable to sleep. I hug him, I kiss him and cover his ears with my hands, but he doesn’t stop crying during the bombings.”