U.S. soldiers work to give al-Tharwa a better rep
Stars and Stripes June 28, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The ghostly ghetto of al-Thawra still whispers of massacres and mayhem.
The 72-square-block slum of taupe hovels is home to nearly 2 million of Baghdad’s 6 million residents, and it carries a reputation that soldiers like Maj. Lainer Ward are changing.
“We’ve worked hard to clean up the neighborhood,” said Ward, operational officer of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
“I’m not saying everything’s perfect, but it’s far from what it used to be. If you fear al-Thawra, it’s because you haven’t been here.”
It’s a city going through an identity crisis.
In the two months since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, al-Thawra has had three names.
For decades, it was Saddam City, so named by the former president, who ironically never stepped foot on the impoverished streets and never funneled money in for its upkeep. With the collapse of his rule, Shiia residents named it Sadr City, honoring the Shiia religious leader grand ayatollah Sayyid Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, executed in 1999, presumably by Saddam’s hired guns.
Though predominately Shiia, military leaders feared Sadr City might offend any Sunni Muslim residents and coaxed community leaders to adopt al-Tharwa, Arabic for “revolution.”
It’s a city marred with a reputation that frustrates Ward.
It’s a place that has been repressed for 35 years.
But things are changing.
Heaps of trash from which goats once feasted have disappeared, replaced now with soccer fields where children play.
Hamid Khalaf’s children now laugh, he says as his eyes well with tears.
They now can play outdoors, but only during the day.
“When the sun sets, I won’t let them go out. I fear the gunshots,” the 33-year-old father said through an interpreter.
Gunshots typically puncture the night air, evidence of revenge killings, car jackings, robberies or “celebratory fire.”
And still, raw sewage flows in the streets. Smoke from piles of burning trash sting the eyes.
“What really surprised us was the amount of looting, especially of government facilities,” Ward said. “Because of the hatred [Iraqis] had, they ended up just raiding those facilities.”
The streets are only “50 percent safe because there is no one to rule, no police,” says Nassir Salih, 18. He fears for his sister. Girls reportedly still are being abducted and raped.
Soldiers are working on these issues, Ward said.
They patrol the streets in nearly 300 Humvees, which makes it easy to maneuver through the narrow, rutted streets.
“They’re like little ants out there,” Ward said. “Every time I turn around, there’s a Humvee.”
The 2nd ACR opened two police stations in al-Thwara, run by military police until local Iraqi police can be equipped and trained to take over.
And for the very first time, Madiha Lazim said she feels safe enough to walk after dark, but only when accompanied by other women.
“Yes, I feel safe,” she began to say. But the conversation abruptly ended when a cleric, who would only identify himself as “Islam,” yelled at the congregating women, telling them they had no business being outside, and especially should not speak to a reporter.
At his insistence, they scurried away.