BAGHDAD, Iraq – After spending much of the year as a battlefield between militiamen and U.S. forces, Baghdad's Sadr City (search) district is now embracing peace and reconstruction.
Anticipation is high for what the residents of the mainly Shiite (search) district say is their overdue empowerment through elections Jan. 30.
The outdoor markets are busy again and the gridlocked traffic is back. The bands of excited children who walked behind local militiamen heading to battle in the fall now clamor around machinery laying down new water pipes.
Workers in orange jumpsuits are laying asphalt in dozens of potholes dug by the fighters to conceal roadside bombs meant to kill American soldiers. The clerics who replaced their turbans and robes with track suits to join the fight are back in mosques and seminaries.
The daily lives of Sadr City's estimated 2.5 million people have not seen much improvement in the two months since fighting ended. But the large Baghdad neighborhood appears on such a euphoric high that the mounds of festering garbage, the constant seepage of sewage and shortage of clean water seem to matter little.
In marked contrast to the skeptical Sunni Arab community, Sadr City's population is looking forward to the January ballot. Banners and posters exhort residents to vote, and booklets explaining the process are distributed house-to-house. Even the sight of U.S. military convoys darting through the district no longer draw resentful looks.
Militiamen of the Imam al-Mahdi Army, who two months ago directed their mortars and rocket propelled grenades at American bases and Humvees, now protect the engineers and laborers working on U.S. military-funded projects. Some of them also have found jobs sweeping streets and fixing the potholes they themselves once dug.
But despite the peace dividends, some ambivalence remains in Sadr City about the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) — as well as the Americans.
"Iraq is for sale: contact Ayad Allawi for details," fresh graffiti declares.
"The Americans came to Iraq to wipe it off the map," a woman speaker told a gathering Thursday of tribal sheiks and professionals to discuss the reconstruction of Sadr City.
Sheik Kareem al-Bakhatti, a senior tribal leader from the area who led the negotiations that ended the fighting in October, said authorities reneged on a promise to free supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr arrested in connection with the fighting.
He also complained that large-scale development projects promised by the Americans during weeks of negotiations have yet to get off the ground. "Some projects started, but they are small and only a few," al-Bakhatti said. Nothing is being done to improve the area's environment either, he said.
But overall, sentiments against the U.S. presence in Iraq and Allawi's government seem to be well in check while everyone's attention is focused on the election, which Shiites in Sadr City and elsewhere expect to ensure their deliverance from centuries of persecution in Iraq.
Built in the 1950s by a sympathetic government as a nod to Iraq's mostly poor Shiites, Sadr City's residents are mostly migrants from the impoverished south of Iraq. Many of Baghdad's Sunni Arabs shun the area, while some see it as an unsafe place and a haven of criminals.
Some of the rural customs of Sadr City's inhabitants persist. It is not uncommon to see herds of sheep roaming the streets, for example. The conservative character of southern Iraq also is in evidence. Women are rarely seen in public without covering their hair.
Being home to the single largest concentration of Iraq's Shiites — a majority that had been oppressed by the Sunni Arab minority for decades — Sadr City was a thorn in the side of the regime of Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni. His feared security agencies closely watched the area for any sign of dissent. Detaining clerics, restricting the Shiites' freedom of worship and security house sweeps were not uncommon during his 23-year rule.
"We have been marginalized for 14 centuries," a speaker told Thursday's reconstruction gathering, which brought together some 200 tribal sheiks and professionals from Sadr City.
The speaker, Abul-Qasim al-Saadi, an aide to interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was alluding to the birth of Shiism in the 7th century and the persecution of its followers by the Sunni rulers of a then-young Islamic empire.
"We have been third-class citizens for too long. We must now abandon the notion that we are weak," he said.
Political and economic empowerment could well be in store for Iraq's Shiites, but dreams of better days are, for the time being, taking a back seat for many in Sadr City who face a daily struggle to cope with erratic services and find basic supplies.
The seven-member family of Murtada Farag, a retired tennis coach with a monthly pension of less than $100, is an example of both the economic hardships of life in Sadr City and the confusion felt by many over issues such as the U.S. presence, the government and al-Sadr's militia.
Farag pays $40 in rent for the two-room house they live in. Already, two of his children quit school to help the family.
"Elections are a good thing and they will bring a better government. Things will improve," said Seif, the family's youngest child, as everyone laughed over his confident tone.