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Misery Under Siege

Is Sadr City Becoming the Next Gaza?

by RANNIE AMIRI

“They have now completely surrounded Sadr City. The media is talking about Gaza, while we now have a second ‘Rafah Crossing’ in Sadr City. The hospitals are jammed with dead bodies…the occupation forces completely ban and open fire at any convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid. People here suffer from shortage of food supplies. The occupation forces have burnt the city’s market.”

- Sadrist MP Dr. Maha al-Dori

“Do you want a third uprising?”

- Muqtada al-Sadr

The ripples of the March 25th Basra offensive-turned-fiasco initiated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have been transformed into waves of bloodletting, crashing rhythmically northward onto Sadr City. According to one governmental official, more than 900 people were killed and 2600 wounded in the teeming slum of three million in April.

For the past month, Sadr City has been effectively sealed off from the rest of Baghdad as United States and Iraqi forces attempt to crush Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. In an ostensible effort to quell the launch of rockets from the neighborhood into the Green Zone, recent days have seen an intensification in fighting and causalities.

The largely symbolic Green Zone attacks are the only latest excuse to go after al-Sadr and his militia. His popular appeal among downtrodden Iraqi Shi’ites threatens to unseat the joint dominance of Maliki’s Dawa party and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (both of which favor the continued presence of American troops) in upcoming October parliamentary elections. Al-Sadr has always been outspoken in his demand the occupation come to an end. It was no therefore coincidence that Vice President Cheney’s March visit to Iraq shortly preceded the attack on his loyalists in Basra.

It was likewise unsurprising to learn that mortar rounds were being fired from Sadr City into the Green Zone by Mahdi Army members. Despite al-Sadr’s March 30th declaration reaffirming his ceasefire order – now in its eighth month – they continue to be targeted. Of far greater importance though are the ramifications of disproportionate violence and collective punishment being levied on the residents of Sadr City.

In an area only half the size of Manhattan, bombs have been dropped from U.S. warplanes, Predator Hellfire missiles fired and Apache attack helicopters dispatched. Yet the heart of Sadr City remains unpenetrated and only its southern outskirts precariously held. The difficulties of street warfare and a recent sandstorm – considered divine intervention by some – have hampered efforts to make further gains. The U.S. is now in the process of erecting a two-mile concrete wall which will separate the southern quarter’s Thawra and Jamila districts from the rest of the city. Apparently, what cannot be defeated will be imprisoned.

As is custom in conflicts where civilians frequently pay the ultimate price, the U.S. has resorted to the classic Israeli defense of blaming the victims. A Associated Press photo showing two-year-old Ali Hussein being pulled from the rubble of his home after it was destroyed by U.S. missiles (he later died in the hospital) caused military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Stover to comment, “The sole burden of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the militants who care nothing for the Iraqi people."

Lost in the coverage of this conflict has been the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Sadr City. On April 23rd, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that the fighting has isolated civilians from food and water supplies and caused hospitals to run out of basic necessities such as dressings and anesthesia. They continue to transport 10,000 liters of drinking water daily to the area.

According to the ICRC, as a consequence of the destruction of al-Jamila market – one of the largest and instrumental in providing for the entire community’s needs –  “People are now short of food, especially as prices of fresh vegetables have increased considerably.”  

Gaza too is under siege. The Israeli strangulation of this tiny strip of land has brought both humanitarian and military catastrophe to its people. It currently suffers from a severe fuel shortage which is hampering the ability of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to provide food and other essential aid to the majority of Gaza’s population. On April 28th in the town of Beit Hanoun, a mother and her four children ages one to six were massacred while they ate breakfast as a result of Israeli shelling. Prime Minister Olmert blamed Hamas for their deaths. It is only one story among hundreds.

Sadr City and Gaza are starting to look more and more alike and their inhabitants have much in common with one another. Both live in densely-populated, poverty-stricken areas where food, clean water, fuel and medical supplies get harder to come by as life under siege takes its inevitable toll; both are reeling from Israeli and American military strikes killing scores of civilians in their midst. Al-Sadr’s eight-month ceasefire is in jeopardy of being rescinded while Hamas’ offer for one was quickly rejected.

Of all the unmitigated disasters the occupation of Iraq has wrought and of all the comparisons made to other foreign misadventures, the U.S. siege of Sadr City and its unfortunate similarity to the Israeli siege of Gaza is certainly one of the most damning.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at rbamiri at yahoo.com.