International Affairs Review

Spring 2016 Article

Baghdad Slums: Sadr City, How Conflict Conditions Effect Quality of Life   

By Harley Roe
Iraqi men called for help after a U.S. rocket attack in Sadr City. Mr. Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has been engaged in fierce clashes with Iraqi and American troops in Baghdad over the past week, called off a huge demonstration in the capital less than 24 hours before it was to take place, for "safety reasons. Credit: Ahmad al-Rubaye/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

Sadr City is the poorest district in Baghdad, Iraq, with slum settlements set up on top of garbage piles and raw sewage flowing through the streets. Since the United States invasion in 2003, the slum conditions have only gotten worse. This paper explores how conflict has contributed to the deterioration of conditions in the slums of Sadr City. The fraught relationship between conflict and deterioration prevents real progress from being made in the area of reconstruction. This relationship also reveals how reconstruction efforts have failed to meet the most basic needs of the population. During periods of conflict, access to essential public services – such as housing, clean water, sewage disposal, and food – is diminished, which poses serious health risks to the population. It is vital to understand how conflict conditions effect a city in order to minimize health risks and speed up post-conflict reconstruction.

This analysis begins with the initial US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which not only destroyed Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, but also caused extensive collateral damage and the destruction of vital services. Open conflict within the city consolidated power for the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia under the directive of Iranian cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Next, the analysis will examine the implications of renewed violence involving the Mahdi Army, which altered the security situation of Sadr City. Clashing with both US and Islamic State (ISIS) forces, the Mahdi Army has made civilians targets and victims of collateral damage. This section focuses on human security, or the lack thereof, and how the fragile political situation in Sadr City could escalate into another open conflict. Additionally, the deterioration of services within Sadr City, such as healthcare, housing, and access to clean water will be discussed. Doing so will illustrate the specific ways in which conflict conditions harm a city. Finally, this paper offers recommendations for the reconstruction process in order to best serve the needs of the population.  Closing remarks will recommend future polices to end the conflict conditions within Sadr city.

A Lancet survey conducted in 2006 estimated the population of Baghdad and its surrounding districts to be just over seven million (Burnham et. al. 2006). Despite being small in area as compared to other districts in Baghdad, Sadr City holds around one fifth of the total city population, between 1.5 million and 2 million people (Johnson et al. 2011).  Some estimates place the population as high as 2.5 million, but gathering census data is difficult in conflict situations (Bowers 2015).

Sadr City was originally named Al-Thawra, which means “Revolution City,” but was later renamed Saddam City, and then again as Sadr City (Burnham et al. 2006). As a result of the renaming, some maps and figures of the district are labeled as “Thawra 1 and Thawra 2.” The district was built to accommodate an influx of Shia migrant workers who came to Baghdad during the late 1950’s (Johnson et al. 2011). Most of the workers migrating to the city came from the Iraqi countryside. Roughly two-thirds of the city lacks access to essential services, including such essentials as water, sewage, and electricity (Johnson et al. 2011). What sets Sadr City apart from slums across the world is that ongoing sectarian violence prevents infrastructural improvement. Reconstruction proves difficult because of the very real threat of car bombs within Sadr City.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that roughly 3.5 million Iraqi citizens are Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) (UNHCR 2015). Of those, close to 500,000 live within Baghdad (Relief Web 2015). Since Sadr City is the poorest district in Bagdad, it only accommodates around 12,000 individuals, or 2% of the total refugee population in Baghdad. Refugees and citizens alike are susceptible to harm in the ongoing violence. Healthcare within Baghdad, as in Iraq in general, is compromised. Infant mortality rates are high, with 37 out of every 1000 newborns dying (CIA 2015). This ranks Iraq as the 57th worst country in terms of infant mortality. Despite this, a staggering 40% of the Iraqi population is under the age of 15 (CIA 2015).  Furthermore, access to healthcare and education are severely diminished by the lack of a proportionately large adult population.

 Ahmad Al-rubaye/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images

After the collapse of the Iraqi government during the US invasion, the Mahdi Army consolidated support within Sadr City. The army provided security and even worked toward providing some essential services such as access to clean, reliable water (Johnson et al. 2011). The Mahdi Army drew its popular support from the poor and disenfranchised.  The success of these efforts and the desperation of the population of Sadr City led it to become the Mahdi Army’s best recruiting ground; within a few years, Sadr City itself provided most of the fighters for the Army. (Carpenter 2014). The Mahdi Army has moved military operations to the provinces just north of Baghdad, where ISIS has been gaining a foothold since August 2015 (Svensson 2014). Since Sadr City is located in the northern portion of Baghdad, the district has a strong strategic position for Mahdi leaders in their fight against ISIS. Thus, not only did Sadr City have to find a way to live within the context of the American occupation, as well as with the Mahdi Army, but now also has to contend with the threats to security that ISIS represents.

During the US invasion of Iraq, Sadr City was left mostly untouched for the first several years of occupation. Since the majority of the city’s population was Shiite, the United States occupying forces were not immediately concerned with the district as a security threat. The Saddam Hussein regime and his supporters were mostly Sunni, which formed the majority of the initial insurgency (Seabrrok 2006). However, this does not mean that there was absolutely no fighting within Sadr City. In fact, in April of 2003 an uprising from Mahdi Army insurgents occurred within Sadr City that lasted eighty-two days (Bowers 2015). Outmatched, the Mahdi Army simmered down and only occasionally ambushed the American military. However, once the Mahdi Army began targeting American military personnel again in 2007, it became clear that Sadr City would be the sight of a major confrontation. Military intelligence stated that the Mahdi Army was headquartered in the district (Johnson et al. 2011). This meant that in order to secure the rest of Baghdad, the American military would have to move into Sadr City and disperse the Mahdi Army.

Though American-led coalition troops had been operating within Baghdad since 2003, the actual siege of Sadr City commenced in the spring of 2008 (Johnson et al. 2011; CNN). A high number of civilian casualties is a major problem of armed conflict within a compact urban space. It is difficult to assess the exact number of casualties, but military estimates have stated that, of the 925 people killed in Sadr City during March of 2008, most of them were civilians (Tawfeeq and Karadsheh 2008). Not only were civilians simply caught in the crossfire, but Mahdi Army personnel often used them as human shields. As a result, 2,605 people were wounded during the March 2008 offensive (Tawfeeq and Karadsheh 2008). Even residents in Sadr City who were not involved with the open conflict were vulnerable. Since citizens were considered expendable by the Mahdi Army, it is unlikely that collateral damage rates would be any different if the Mahdi Army and ISIS clash openly in the streets of Sadr City. The willingness of the Mahdi Army to use civilians as human shields spells disaster for the local population.

The conflict conditions generated after the initial American invasion in 2003 were exacerbated by the reemergence of the Mahdi Army, which was the group largely responsible for the creation of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) used to such devastating effect against coalition troops after the initial invasion in 2003 (Freeman 2014). Although it can be argued that the Mahdi Army and the United States have a new common enemy in the form of ISIS, there is little chance that the two groups will work together. In fact, one militia member said, “If the Americans are thinking about coming back here, all of we Iraqis will become time bombs - we will eat them alive; we can deal with ISIS ourselves” (Freeman 2014: 1). Predominantly Shiite, the Mahdi Army directly opposes the dominantly Sunni ISIS. Currently, the militia is known as the “Peace Brigades,” a moniker meant to rebrand the Mahdi Army in order to garner support from the government (Stanford University 2015). However, the leadership structure and composition, as well as the tactics, supporters, and militants are all exactly the same. The Mahdi Army still exists in its original form and with its original sectarian goals, just with a different name for public consumption.

In June 2014, the Mahdi Army reemerged with a display of force in the streets of Sadr City. The call came from Moqtada al-Sadr, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to defend Shiite holy sites that were in jeopardy of destruction at the hands of ISIS militants (Morris 2014; Svensson 2014). The Mahdi march in Sadr City consisted of militants parading with homemade rocket launchers and other improvised weapons, along with the traditional assault rifle (Morris 2014). With the Mahdi Army rallying support within Sadr City again, it is clear that violence inside the city will not easily subside in the coming months.

It is apparent the Mahdi Army has no desire to back down from ISIS, as in September 2014 it claimed the deaths of over thirty ISIS militants in the Albu-Hassan district in Amerli (Stanford University 2015).  With this blatant attack on ISIS, it should be no surprise that ISIS would retaliate. One month after the conflict in Amerli, ISIS militants conducted a terrorist truck bombing in the Mahdi Army’s base of operations – Sadr City. A refrigerator truck packed full of improvised explosive devices killed seventy-six people and wounded 212 more (Newsweek 2015). To make matters even worse, this attack was conducted within Sadr City’s large Jamila market, a vital agricultural trade center. The debilitation of public services within the city is compounded when the effects of terrorism and open conflict are added.

The Mahdi Army has also derived legitimacy from the Iraqi government. This is in stark contrast to the events of the previous decade, when Iraqi military personnel would openly clash with the Mahdi Army militia (Stanford University 2015). The new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, earned the support of Muqtada al-Sadr (Stanford University 2015). Therefore, at least for the moment, Sadr City will be spared from adversarial conflict between national forces and the militia. This rocky alliance, however, could quickly dissolve into violence if al-Sadr revokes support for the government, or vice versa. Al-Sadr had previously supported the Nuri al-Maliki regime, but had revoked his support when al-Maliki pushed for the Mahdi Army to lay down their arms (Tawfeeq and Karadsheh 2008). As it stands now, the government and the militia are only aligned insofar as much as they share a common goal, which mainly consists of the retention of a Shiite-controlled territory.

Citizens within Sadr City are the most vulnerable to harm if any open conflict breaks out within the city. Citizens must contend with Iraqi security forces, the Mahdi Army, and now ISIS forces who may target them or their neighbors. According to one expert, the Mahdi Army “with [a state’s] security apparatus looking over their shoulder, therefore have to consider not only the problems of generalized insecurity, but calculate the risk of interacting with certain influential people in central secure areas” (Bartlett et al. 2012: 161). Citizens within Sadr City have to cope with an increased militia presence from the Mahdi Army, ISIS insurgents, as well as the increasing possibility of American engagement. Risks of terrorism, collateral damage, and poor state services all demonstrate the deteriorating conditions of the slums in Sadr City. In addition, individuals must also take care to not attract attention from possible opposing fighters, such as ISIS and the Mahdi Army, in order to avoid becoming targets themselves. And now, with much of Iraq under the control of ISIS, individuals within Sadr City must not only take care of themselves but also have an increased burden in the form of incoming refugees.

The conditions within the Sadr City slum are so deteriorated that those seeking refuge within the city of Baghdad are often unable to find adequate housing; only three percent of Baghdad’s Internally Displaced Person (IDP) population reside within the Sadr City slums (Relief Web 2015). Though this percentage may seem insignificant, it is important to keep in mind that Sadr City is smaller in area than the other districts in Baghdad. Figure 1 shows the area layout of Baghdad. Sadr City is made up of the two districts labeled as “Thawra 1” and “Thawra 2.” Sadr City is significantly smaller than all of the other Baghdadi districts, so any increase in population can have a dramatic effect.

Figure 1. Map of Baghdad from the Iraq Information Portal from the UN Joint Analysis and Policy Unit.

Those refugees who move into Sadr City are those who cannot afford the cost of living in the other districts. Figure 2 shows the distribution of refugee shelter types in each district of Baghdad. In all other districts besides Sadr City (Thawra 1 and 2), significant portions of the IDP population live in rented housing (Relief Web 2015). These figures suggest that refugees within Sadr City are often forced to live with other residents who are able and willing to accept other people into their homes, a last resort for those who cannot afford to rent their own lodgings. In the northern portion of Sadr City, Thawra 2, 15% of refugees housed there live inside of school buildings simply because these buildings are able to accommodate large numbers of people (Relief Web 2015). This means that access to education for both refugee and local children is restricted as the schools have been reprioritized as ad hoc shelters and cannot be used for their intended purpose. The timing of the refugee influx coming so soon after the destruction and upheaval of the war exacerbates reconstruction delays within Sadr City.

Figure 2. Shelters by district. Relief Web 2015.

Reconstruction efforts within Iraq in general have been haphazard and have not produced desirable conditions within Baghdad and Sadr City. The war destroyed hospitals, the electric grid, schools, and water and sewer lines (Lutz 2013). Exact data concerning the percentages of buildings and services that sustained damage is unavailable. What is available is the American budgetary expenditure for reconstruction in Iraq. From 2003 to 2012 the US allocated $61 billion in development assistance to Iraq. (Lutz 2013) Though the US has contributed a significant portion of reconstruction funds, the Iraqi government has allocated twice that much: $138 billion (Lutz 2013). The Iraqi government pays for these efforts using its oil proceeds, which make up 90% of the total national revenue (Lutz 2013). This means that the Iraqi government has largely been charged with handling its own reconstruction efforts. Instead of improving public goods and services such water and electricity, the Iraqi government is forced to establish those goods in the first place. The staggering $138 billion spent could have been used more profitably to jumpstart local markets through direct investment, to establish a universal healthcare system, and assist with overall conflict resolution.

Healthcare within Sadr City is difficult to assess. There are twenty healthcare centers, only five of which are hospitals, which must handle the needs of two million residents. The largest of these, Sadr General Hospital, was hit by a missile strike in 2008 (Rubin 2008). This strike, though not aimed at the hospital, damaged several ambulances, the building itself, and even injured several children who were nearby. Safety within even a presumably safe place such as a hospital cannot be guaranteed during conflict conditions. In another section of Sadr City, Iraqi security forces raided the Mohammed-Bakr Al Hakim Hospital under the suspicion that the doctors had treated Mahdi Army personnel (Webster 2009). Thirty-five staff members were arrested and the hospital was forced to shut down for a short period of time. By limiting access to healthcare conflict conditions create an atmosphere of desperation. Not only has access to healthcare decreased as a result of conflict, but the healthcare needs of the population increase. Injury treatment is the most obvious healthcare need, but the lack of access to other essential services such as clean water also produces health risks.

Clean water is essential for daily life, but becomes much harder to access under conflict conditions. Large sections of Baghdad’s drinking water and sewage systems have been damaged, including those in Sadr City. Fecal contamination negated any effective treatment of drinkable water (Al Naswiri et al. 2010). Such water contamination not only prevents access to potable water but increases the risk of waterborne illnesses. As a result of fecal contamination, a Hepatitis E outbreak spread throughout Sadr City. A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) of 268 patients who were treated for jaundice revealed that 102 of those were also infected with Hepatitis E (Al Naswiri et al. 2010). This means that those who were susceptible to some waterborne illnesses were also in danger of infecting others. Unsafe drinking water, drawn from unpurified sources or from sewage-contaminated surface water, is pervasive throughout the Sadr City slums. Until access to the most basic of human needs such as clean water can be met, the entire reconstruction process will be stagnated.

This article has demonstrated that conditions within Sadr City have deteriorated due to incessant and persistent conflict, and have directly impeded the progress of reconstruction. The American-led invasion in 2003 destabilized services that were already difficult to access. Clean water, housing, and healthcare were the sectors most directly effected by the war. The emergence of the Mahdi Army escalated tensions and casualties within the city, while simultaneously attracting acts of terror by ISIS. Reconstruction efforts within the district have been haphazard and ineffective in bringing back essential services. This is partly because the United States has not contributed enough funding to the reconstruction effort.

The United States should allocate a more significant portion of its defense budget to post-conflict reconstruction. It is unjust that the fledgling Iraqi government is obligated to pay the majority of the bill for their own reconstruction. At a minimum, the United States should allocate an additional $77 billion to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. This will match the 138 billion already funded by the new Iraqi government. Doing so will foster a partnership between the two nations and allow peace dialogues and trade relations to emerge from an equal playing field. In addition to this, all reconstruction funds should be pooled and managed by a third party organization such as the United Nations. This action will allow the funds to be targeted toward specific programs, such as reestablishing the power grid within Sadr City and repairing the sewer and water lines. And before this can be done, the conflict must come to a definitive end.

In order to cease open conflict, the Mahdi Army must first disband permanently. This can be accomplished by incorporating these forces into the Iraqi Security Forces apparatus. Doing so would provide proper training for the militiamen, as well as prevent future conflict between the two groups. This would then allow Iraqi Security Forces to confront ISIS in a more decisive manner, which could expedite the process of securing the country. Disbanding the Mahdi Army would also prevent Sadr City from becoming a direct target of ISIS, since the Mahdi headquarters would no longer exist in the slum. In order to achieve this, the Iraqi government must engage in peace talks with the Mahdi Army and the conflict in Syria must be addressed by the UN. After the conflict conditions have subsided, true reconstruction can begin without hindrance brought by bloodshed.


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