Fear and fighting in Iraq's Sadr City
Bryan Pearson, AFP, April 8, 2008
Picture: Iraqi men work to extinguish a blaze caused by a US rocket attack in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City. -AFP
BAGHDAD (AFP) - "We're scared," admitted Abu Muamel as the sudden blast of a mortar round fightened the baby in his arms to tears and set US and Iraqi armoured vehicles racing through Sadr City's smoke-choked streets.
It's too dangerous to stay here," Abu Muamel added as he and his family of eight on Tuesday fled the sprawling district in eastern Baghdad that is the theatre of raging battles between Mahdi Army militiamen and security forces.
"A mortar landed in our street, killing a boy. I'm taking my family out of here. We're going to stay with relatives in Mansur," the 42-year-old artisan said, referring to a relatively safe part of western Baghdad.
As he spoke another two mortar rounds slammed into a nearby neighbourhood. The explosions drowned out the whine of US Stryker armoured troop carriers and the relentless clatter of Apache helicopters, which have been blasting away at mortar and rocket teams with Hellfire missiles for the past three days.
"That's Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army) trying to hit the Americans," explained an Iraqi soldier manning a checkpoint at the edge of Sadr City.
"They don't target us, only the Americans," he added as one of Abu Muamel's small daughters began coughing from the acrid smoke in the air.
"We're going now," said the father, herding his children, wife and sisters-in-law through the checkpoint, one small boy tightly clutching his hand, a slightly older girl toddling alongside him carrying a bag crammed with clothes and cuddly toys.
Screaming fire engines sped by, startling supermarket owner Abu Said as he struggled with two young sons to push a large wooden cart crammed with foodstuffs towards his store, three kilometres (one and a half miles) away.
The violence, a vehicle curfew in Sadr City and the destruction in the fighting of the vast Jamila food market have added layers of extra hardship to Abu Said's life.
"People want food so I have to go every day to Al-Shorja market (in central Baghdad) for supplies. Because we can't use vehicles, I have to use this push cart," said Abu Said, dressed in long flowing robes and perspiring from the exertion.
"It takes me three hours to fetch my stocks instead of just half an hour as it did when I used to go to Jamila," he said.
Jumar Kadhum and his wife joined the throngs of people heading through the streets with bags of food they had brought from a market outside Sadr City, taking advantage of an earlier lull in the fighting.
"There are no supplies left inside Sadr City," said Kadhum, balding and in his forties. "We have left our children at home. We all stay in one room because we are so frightened. The children do not go out at all. We have just left quickly to get some supplies. Mortars have been falling all around us. We have seen bodies in the streets."
Other residents said they were stocking up in case the fighting gets worse and they become trapped for days.
"We are all frightened. There is so much gunfire and mortars," said Umm Rusul, carrying supplies of rice, tinned food and bottles of cooking oil, while her young daughter struggled under a large bag of tea.
"There are 17 of us living in the house," she said. "We hear explosions all the time. My children have learnt to tell the difference between a mortar, a rocket, a rocket-propelled grenade, an IED (roadside bomb) and a JDAM (guided bomb).
"It is very dangerous," she added, as three pickup trucks sped by, packed with heavily armed men wearing the uniforms of Iraqi special forces.
"Those were Americans," said an Iraqi soldier wearing wrap-around sunglasses despite the pall cast by the numerous fires set during the fighting.
"The Americans know that the Mahdi Army doesn't target the Iraqi security forces so now they are dressing like Iraqis," added the soldier, expressing a belief, whether true or not, that now seems to be taken as gospel on the streets of the impoverished township of around two million people.
A motor mechanic with a round belly and oil-stained clothes wished the fighting would end.
"I have not been able to work for three days. This is the first time I've left my home since Saturday. My family needs food. We just want peace."