BAGHDAD — A continuous flow of cars, scooters, and three-wheeled vehicles pour onto the avenues of Sadr City, Baghdad's massive Shia district, where roundabouts honor the memories of martyrs killed at the front-lines. Ahmed Houcham el-Alabiad, 29, rides his bike on the wrong side of the road until he reaches home, a shack located in the midst of warehouses dedicated to repairing refrigerators and air-conditioners. He meets his brother and two friends, who are mine-clearing experts like him fighting ISIS in the Iraqi government-backed People's Mobilization Forces.
In his teenage years, Houcham el-Alabiad fought with the Mahdi Army, a militia created by Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr, against the U.S. invasion. "I can handle an AK-47 perfectly as well as rocket launchers," he says. "I joined the Saraya Ashura brigades in 2014 when we learned that ISIS was on Baghdad's doorstep. I wanted to take part in the resistance. That was before the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a call to mobilization that saved our city from the terrorists' assault."
That call came on June 13, 2014, three days after the fall of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which had been abandoned by Iraqi troops. At the time, tens of thousands of militiamen grouped into the People's Mobilization Forces. Since then, this parallel army, made up of an overwhelming majority of Shia Muslims and many factions that are directly dependent on Iran, has become the spearhead against ISIS. It's taking part in the campaign to liberate Mosul but it's not supposed to enter the city as it might commit crimes against Sunni civilians. The force's mission is to retake Tal Afar, a stronghold of ISIS between Mosul and the Syrian border.
Houcham el-Alabiad has just returned from the front-line on furlough. "I volunteered for mine-clearing because we badly needed people in that field. I enjoyed the training. Our role is essential because mines are one of our enemy's main weapons," he explains. "To clear a mine is to save a lot of lives without killing. We face death at every second. Your first mistake is also your last."
Houcham el-Alabiad, who has seven brothers, continues, "We're losing a lot of people. Two of my brothers died martyrs. The first, Mohammed, in August 2014 near Fallujah as he was trying to clear a house of mines in the middle of a battle. The second, Bassam, in July 2015, during the inspection of a booby-trapped factory, also near Fallujah. Our unit has lost 40% of its force in less than three years, and 15% since the battle for Mosul started, in October 2016."
Houcham el-Alabiad's eyes are fixed on a television screen that shows continuous footage of fighting in Mosul. Houcham el-Alabiad's job involves cutting the wires of booby traps set "on roadsides, in refrigerators, sometimes even inside children's toys." He works without protection, just pliers. He knows he's living on borrowed time.
We face death at every second. Your first mistake is also your last.
In Sadr City, where two million people live in precarious conditions, war is a never-ending story. Markets are regularly hit by terror attacks. Each time, peddlers and shopkeepers clean off the blood of their neighbors and sweep away the broken glass to resume their activity just hours after the carnage.
The attacks rarely cross the border. Jan. 2 was an exception. A suicide bombing, claimed by ISIS, killed a dozen people at a fruit and vegetable market. The terror group specified that the attack had been the work of a Sunni Iraqi who'd targeted Shia Muslims, who the group consider heretics. The bodies were transferred to a hospital in Sadr City. Among them was that of a man without a head. One member of the hospital's staff while looking for the beheaded man's ID accidentally activated a small explosive charge on the corpse. The explosion blew out the morgue's door. The man without a head was, presumably, a second suicide bomber. The mortician came out uninjured.
A few days earlier, a car bombing killed 52 people and injured dozens more in the Al-Bayaa district in southern Baghdad. "Terrorism hits Shia and Sunni Muslims indiscriminately, but it's Shias who are particularly targeted in the capital," observes Ibrahim al-Jabri, a leader for the Sadrist movement and a magistrate in Sadr City. "Don't think that every attack is committed by ISIS. Government parties are behind some of them. They use violence to settle accounts."
Al-Jabri is close to Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the current regime. He hosts representatives of Sunni tribes from Anbar province, a hotbed of ISIS. Sheiks sit around him in a room inside Al-Massen mosque. They complain about how Shia militias treat their residents since the region was liberated from ISIS last year.
"These visitors have fought against ISIS. We want to have good relations with them," Al-Jabri says. The war against ISIS is also, beyond the fight against a terrorist organization, a civil war between Shia Muslims and a fraction of Sunnis. And it's the second of its kind.
The first such conflict plunged Baghdad into an abyss between 2005 and 2009. In addition to the attacks, kidnappings, summary executions, came the widespread use of torture. Violence reached an inconceivable level of brutality. For many months, bodies would be found atrociously mutilated, burnt with acid and chemicals, flayed, their backbone broken, hands and feet severed, eyes and teeth ripped out, their heads pierced with a drill.
The people of Baghdad protect themselves with a subterfuge: They compare their situation to a nightmare.
The Shia militias eventually won the conflict, which massacred tens of thousands of people. They drove part of the Sunni population and the Christian community away from Baghdad. Districts are now divided according to religion and purged. Only a few areas remain where different communities live together.
The Iraqi writer Ahmed Saadawi recounts this period in his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. It revisits the Western story of a monster that escapes its makers. "Baghdad has seen extraordinary stories that no normal person, meaning someone who lives in peace, could believe," Ahmed Saadawi says. "I draw inspiration from real facts, like the misfortune that happened to a visitor at a morgue who came to collect his brother's body. The employee told him to take the pieces that interested him from a pile of non-identified corpses."
Even though the level of violence has decreased since then, Baghdad still is a city that lives in fear. "For a foreign observer, Iraqis seem to have gotten used to the violence but nobody can get used to terrorism and abductions. The people of Baghdad protect themselves with a subterfuge: They compare their situation to a nightmare. That way, you can go through it living like pretty much anybody else by telling yourself that it will end, eventually."
Baghdad is in a constant state of siege. The airport is a secure island cut off from the rest of the world. To go there, you need to take shuttles on a deserted highway through a vast no man's land. State officials have taken shelter in a former American enclave surrounded by high concrete walls, protected by tanks and elite policemen. The few Western civilians left, businessmen for the most part, travel around in armored cars with armed bodyguards.
The city is studded with checkpoints. Walls have been erected to separate communities, to protect the streets, the official buildings, hotels, malls, and houses. The tallest are 20 feet high. Miniature versions of concrete blast walls are sold for $10 on markets, the way hawkers sell miniature Eiffel Towers in Paris. They also call them Bremer walls, after Baghdad's first American governor.
A year ago, Iraqi authorities considered a security barrier that would protect the capital from terrorist incursions coming from the north and west. They planned to remove part of the concrete blocks from the city center to erect an outer wall equipped with surveillance cameras, and surrounded by a moat. A contract was signed with companies but the work hasn't yet begun due to a lack of funds.
Security officials have also reviewed their defense plans after a bombing last July that killed 324 people died. A van transporting 250 kilograms of explosives had successfully entered the city center to blow up in front of a mall on the eve of Ramadan. The attack provoked a political earthquake and widened the gulf between inhabitants and the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who was accused of negligence. The attack revealed large holes in the security infrastructure as the van had successfully passed through several checkpoints unnoticed.
Baghdad is a city of blood.
The government abandoned the bomb detectors that a conman had sold them a few years ago. Instead, they started to train experts in that field. Reducing violence is at the heart of Al-Abadi's strategy, which aims to rebuild trust with citizens while weakening Shia militias that have been largely trained and financed by Tehran. It's a long shot, despite the recent victories against ISIS.
These measures have eased the terrorist group's grip on Baghdad. The night curfew has been lifted and more than 100 checkpoints have been removed. The number of attacks have decreased since the beginning of this year. "To save the city, we would need to find a solution that goes to the root of what is, first and foremost, a political problem. We have a long way ahead of us before we get there. Our country has never known justice. We went from the injustice of a totalitarian system under Saddam to the injustice of Islamist parties," says Ahmed Saadawi.
The writer dreams of a city that would look like Mutanabbi street, an islet of exchanges and culture. The famous artery is lined with shops and bookstores and reaches the Tigris river. Shabandar, a hotspot for political and intellectual life that foreigners no longer visit, is still packed with visitors on Fridays. It attracts artists and professors. Women are allowed in. A nightingale sings amid cigarette smoke.
Adam Adil, a 30-year-old poet idolized by local youngsters, is a regular. Assailed by fans who want a selfie with him, he has to take refuge inside his brother's boutique to find some peace and quiet. "Baghdad is a city of blood. I live each day as if it was my last. The threats against me bring intensity to my existence. Tomorrow might be too late: This incites me to write about this absurd world," he says.
In 2015, he left the civic movement that denounced the political corruption and demanded reforms. He says it's being seized upon by the Shia cleric Muktada al-Sadr. Five demonstrators were killed at their last gathering in February when unknown gunmen fired missiles at them.
"Young people identify with my writing. Religious extremists are responsible for Iraqis suffering," Adil says.
Before returning to Mutanabbi street, he greets a beggar who have been frequenting a spot on the sidewalk for years. He used to be an officer under Saddam Hussein. He lost his mind when the regime collapsed. In Baghdad, squalid sometimes rhymes with extraordinary.