"Not America, not Saddam, just Islam!"

In the Baghdad slum formerly known as Saddam City, gunfire and bloody mayhem break out in a packed meeting hall, as Shiite sheiks move in to Iraq's power vacuum.

Published April 17, 2003 12:04AM (EDT)

"The looting and other sins will have to stop," Baghdad Shiite leader Sheik Rahim Sajhud tells a noisy crowd Tuesday, barely making himself heard over a P.A. system. The next moment the angry sound of machine guns drowns everything out, except the screams of the terrified throng Sajhud is addressing in front of the town hall.

"Welcome to Al-Thawra, city of the revolution," a sign on the building reads. Until a week ago this area of Baghdad was better known as Saddam City, the poorest neighborhood of the Iraqi capital. Now it's the most dangerous one.

The moment the first shots ring out, the crowd surges forward, pushing the sheiks in charge of the gathering up against the glass facade of the building. I fall into a corner, with at least two layers of people on top of me. Despite the weight, it gives me a relative -- and probably misguided -- feeling of safety. There is a moment of total confusion as the bullets rip into the plaster of the front of the building, then the sheiks' guards respond. The resulting firefight leads to even more panic.

Throughout the manic scrambling to get away from the shooters, several people in the crowd keep worrying about the safety of their Western visitor. "I will protect you," says a man who waves a pistol in front of my face. I really don't want to see a weapon at that moment.

One of the windows of the facade shatters, thanks to a bullet or the pressure of the crowd, and glass shards come tumbling down. The crowd scatters into the building, frantically trying to find a way out. But a few minutes later, the shooting subsides. Guards have fought off the attackers and captured one of them. The crowd returns and vents its anger on the alleged assailant, beating him with iron rods, sticks and a mean-looking car jack. When nothing more seems to remain than a red chunk of flesh, they drag the man to the sheiks, who attempt to interrogate him.

It is still not clear who is behind the attack. "It may be a personal vendetta," speculates one man. "No, it was definitely political," says another.

Sheik Sajhud had just been introduced as the new deputy mayor of Thawra -- which is now also being called Salaam (peace) City, or Sadr City, after a prominent Shiite cleric who (it is widely assumed) was killed by Saddam Hussein's agents. The 1.5 to 2 million residents of Thawra are almost all adherents of the Shiite branch of Islam. They suffered much under the old regime, and are now determined not to let anyone dominate them again.

While the U.S. military struggles to restore order in Baghdad -- hooking up in some cases with former Iraqi police officers and Baath Party officials -- in Thawra, it is the Shiite leaders who have moved into the breach. "We, the local religious leaders, the tribal chiefs and prominent people, have decided to set up our own government for our neighborhood," Sheik Sajhud had announced, just before the shooting began.

There is no doubt that U.S. forces in Baghdad are struggling to reestablish law and order and security, even though they say it is not their job to be a police force. Residents are getting increasingly outraged, and frightened, by the looting, shooting and burning. The power vacuum is quickly being filled by neighborhood vigilantes who have set up militias to protect their homes. Sometimes these are led by Baath Party officials who win sympathy from the population with their efforts. In many other places, religious and tribal leaders have taken matters into their own hands. In Thawra, it is the Shiite clerics.

Apparently, some people are not pleased with the idea of the Shiites controlling any part of Baghdad or Iraq. There is no lack of suspects as to who was behind the shooting on Tuesday. There are the hard-line members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, who do not want any alternative center of power to emerge. Then there are the looters, who may not want to give up their Kalashnikov assault rifles and the easy spoils and power that come with possessing them. Conspiracy theorists insisted, on no evidence, that the U.S., determined to keep the Shiites from grabbing power, was behind the attacks.

Conspiracy theories abound in Thawra, and this is a prime occasion for them. Abu Nour, another deputy mayor-designate and one of the organizers of the attempt to establish a local government, sees the hand of the U.S. behind the incident.

"There are many here who are taking large amounts of money now from the coalition in order to keep us down," he says. "We will deal with them." Nour is almost more anti-American than he is anti-Saddam Hussein. "The U.S. is only interested in our oil. What is happening now to all those promises that things would get better here?" He does not want a U.S. presence in Iraq, nor, he says, does he need any help to reestablish services and restore security.

The sheiks in Thawra know that the U.S. regards the Shiite population there with suspicion, fearing they have close links with neighboring Shiite Iran -- one of the two remaining nations on President Bush's "axis of evil."

"We are nobody's agents," states Sheik Rasul Al Gharawi from the nearby Hadj Razak mosque, without even being asked. Iraq's Shiites remember that the Americans left them in the lurch when they rose up in the nation's south against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. This, many believe, happened not because the U.S. lacked international support to topple Saddam -- as former President Bush insisted -- but because the U.S. feared the rebels were pro-Iranian. On Tuesday, the main Shiite opposition group, SCIRI, boycotted an Iraqi opposition meeting in Nasariya. American attemps to woo senior religious figures has not yet paid off.

"We want all Iraqis to unite, Shiite, Sunni, Kurd and Arab," says Sheik Gharawi. It seems, though, as if the Shiites, who know they are a majority in Iraq, will not easily allow others to rule them again. "We suffered most under Saddam Hussein," says the sheik, "now it is our turn to have freedom and do things our way, according to how we live."

"Not America, not Saddam, just Islam," chanted the crowd of several hundred people who gathered Tuesday outside the town hall. They came through the unpaved, sewage-filled street of the district, carrying black banners.

For now, the American military in Baghdad has mainly seemed to ally itself with the remnants of Saddam's police in its efforts to restore order. They tend to compare the Iraqi capital to Berlin in 1945. "Everybody was a member of the [Nazi] party or collaborated in some way with the regime," says Capt. Joe Plezner, spokesman for the First Marine Division command, which has set up shop in the Palestine Hotel, along with the remaining contingent of international journalists, in the city center.

Plezner explains that the allies used the old Nazi police force to keep the order in the German capital in 1945, and the same will have to happen now in Baghdad because there is nobody else. And restoring law and order and bringing back security to the increasingly restless population is the highest priority of the Marines.

The old Iraqi police officially started patrolling together with the Marines on Monday. At least in one instance, they ran into some fierce resistance on Tuesday, from Fedayeen Saddam "irregulars," who now see the police as turncoats, say the locals. For most of the people, though, the police represent the old regime of Saddam Hussein. Plezner says he is aware of the mistrust. "We will watch these guys," he says. "We know that some of them were involved in oppressing the population." For now, the only Iraqi officers on the beat will be traffic cops and auxiliary forces that were involved only in maintaining public order, says Plezner.

But in Thawra, the mosques jumped quickly into the power vacuum, even before they tried to establish a local council. For several days, Sheik Gharawi set up a roadblock in front of his mosque that forced people to turn in stolen goods. Looters are easy to identify because their booty consists of the most unlikely objects, such as huge air conditioning units or gilded chandeliers, carelessly thrown into the back of pickup trucks or tied to the roofs of rickety cars. More recently, though, the sheiks have tried persuasion; they have distributed a fatwa from Najaf, the Shiite holy city, that urges people not to fall into the sin of theft.

At the Hadj Razak mosque, a mountain of useless returns are piled up in the courtyard. Office chairs, planks and torn carpets -- nothing of value is evident. But some of the believers' guilt may have been assuaged. All the returned goods will be given back to the original owners, a mosque official says. And if they can't be found, it will be given to the new government or to the poor.

That may be the most likely outcome, since much of the loot comes from the homes of the senior officials of the old regime -- "original owners" who aren't likely to come back to claim their stuff. Hospital officials have already voiced gratitude, however, for getting back some of their looted drugs through the mosques.

It has not escaped many other inhabitants of the capital, though, that most of the looters citywide have seemed to come from Thawra. "All the cars with stolen goods go to Saddam City," said one man in the city center. The rumors may be contributing to -- or attributable to -- the old rivalry between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam heating up. "Now the Shiites think they can be the boss -- well, we'll see about that," another man remarked. But politics is not the first concern of many Baghdad residents as long as the city continues to be robbed and set ablaze.

"Look, that is a warehouse of the Ministry of Transport and Communications," one man tells me, pointing at a burning building. "And there goes the Ministry of Higher Education," he says, pointing at a plume of smoke. "First they steal everything, and then they set it on fire." It's true that the only government building the Marines seem to have strenuously protected is the Ministry of Oil, which has been turned into something of a fortress. The nearby National Museum of Antiquities has famously been looted. Its forlorn director spends his days providing tours of the destruction that has been wrought, the priceless artifacts and years of research destroyed.

The Ibn Al Nafis hospital, not far from the center of town, had U.S. protection until Monday morning, when the armored personnel carrier parked out front pulled out. Director Mohammed Ridda has set up his own security patrols, but the sudden departure of the Americans causes a lot of trouble. "We had sent many of our people home after the Americans arrived here," he explains. "Now there's no telephone and some live very far away." In the short-handed situation, he has taken up guard duty himself.

Looters have already tried to get into the hospital, attempting to steal the EKG machine, says Ridda. "They knocked an air-conditioner into the room and got in through the hole, but we chased them off in time." He is angry that the U.S. is not providing better protection: "Only when a wounded journalist was brought here did they park an APC outside and did we get some drugs."

Like other hospitals here, the Ibn Al Nafis has a hard time coping with the war and its aftermath, and every day, more victims of the violence are being brought in. A lot of the patients who come in now suffer from gunshot wounds inflicted by looters.

Sinan Al-Bayati was shot through the cheek by his neighbors: "They robbed an arms depot and then came to steal my car." He resisted, and now he and three of his family members are in the hospital. His cousin was shot through both legs. "When I go home, I will take care of them," says Al-Bayati threateningly.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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