The Misery in Sadr City

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A Red Crescent worker distributes aid to a resident of Sadr City.

The shell-shocked Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City in east Baghdad epitomizes the tragedy and terror that continue to grip Iraq five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Around 2 million people cluster in homes often shared by as many as six families, caught in the crossfire of an ongoing confrontation between the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and U.S. and Iraqi forces, streets cluttered with garbage and the rubble of recent battles. Many of the warren's residents are loyal to al-Sadr; others are simply quiescent to his militia's unyielding presence. Some 925 people have been killed and over 2,600 wounded since the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an assault last month aimed at disarming the Mahdi Army, and many residents who have hung on through years of hardship are now making a desperate flight to Sadr City's perimeters.

Officials from the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization estimate that hundreds have fled the slum amid the heavy fighting and oppressive curfews that have cut off access to food, water and electricity. "We don't have the real number, because Sadr City is huge," says Mohammed Kamel Hassan, a volunteer organizer for the aid group, on the number of residents displaced by the fighting. Many, he adds, have settled for the time being in areas along the northern edge of the sprawling neighborhood, while the fiercest fighting rages at its southern end.

Those who remain in their homes face an increasingly desperate humanitarian crisis that shows no signs of easing. On Sunday, around 50 political leaders from different parties gathered in the beleaguered neighborhood to protest the deteriorating conditions. The government claims it has made its own inroads into the city to deliver aid. "The Ministry of Trade managed to provide the food rations [to Sadr City] for April and next month as well, and the Ministery of Health provided medicines," Tahseen al-Sheikhly, a government spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday.

But the Red Crescent's Hassan says up to 1 million Sadr City residents are still in need of emergency aid, and that some 575 volunteers from his organization are struggling daily to deliver bags of flour and other basic foodstuffs. Roads closed by one armed group or another leave volunteers hefting aid packages on foot or by mule, while desperate residents throng the group's distribution centers. Sometimes, Hassan says, Mahdi Army fighters — many of them teenagers — stop his convoys on the outskirts in an attempt to intercept the aid packets, forcing the organization to make hurried calls to the local Sadrist political leadership to ensure their safe passage.

Sheikhly said government aid delivery has been directly targeted by armed fighters. "The food rations and convoys are being targeted with IEDs," the government spokesman said. "The ambulances are being targeted with IEDs, and the vehicles which try to replace generators in some of the sectors are also being targeted by some of those terrorists."

Hoping to quell the rise in rocket and mortar attacks aimed at Baghdad's fortified Green Zone in recent weeks, U.S. forces have stepped up air assaults on suspected militants in Sadr City. But even American commanders concede it's a difficult battle space. "These are circumstances where those criminal groups are operating directly out of civilian neighborhoods," said U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin J. Bergner. "So, it makes this a very complex and difficult challenge for the coalition forces."

Hassan says he and his volunteers have witnessed numerous civilian casualties, and survivors bearing wounds ranging from debilitating shock to severed legs claimed to have resulted both from U.S. air strikes and militia fire. "We see terrible things," said Hassan, with a grieving look. His outlook is not optimistic.