Nine years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, predominantly Shiite Sadr City remains in a state of neglect. The recent discovery of oil seems unlikely to change things in Baghdad's biggest slum.
"We are midwives but we've all been fired and we cannot keep our families any longer. Do they want to force us to steal to survive?"
Sarah Majed, 51, can barely contain her despair under her chador. Along with five other women, she's been waiting for hours to meet Brahim Jawary, Sadr City's main political and religious authority.
Built in 1959, Sadr City was designed to provide housing for Baghdad's urban poor as well as for many who had come from the countryside. Today, Baghdad's biggest slum is home to almost three million people, the great majority of them Shiite Muslims.
"I cannot help these women myself but I will speak with the Ministry of Health," Jawary told DW from his office, adding that he receives dozens of similar visits on a daily basis. The cleric describes an "almost self-ruled city" but the conversation is interrupted by an elderly woman carrying a picture of her missing granddaughter.
"Help me find her!" she implores Jawary, who remains sit on a carpet on the floor. "Her parents, uncles, virtually every family member is dead today," laments the old woman in tears.
Unsurprisingly, many are still missing today in Sadr City. These streets were the scene of intense fighting between American troops and the local Mahdi Army fighters for years.
The suburb was renamed from Saddam City to Sadr City in 2003, after Shiite leader Mohammed Al Sadr who was assassinated by Saddam Hussein in 1999. His son, Moqtada Al Sadr, is the charismatic religious and political leader who led the Mehdi Army during the American occupation before he switched to politics.
In the 2010 elections, the Sadr Movement won 40 seats in Parliament and Iraq's Prime Minister, Nuri Al Maliki, owes his second term to Sadr's support.
The pattern of crisscrossing wires that form part of an informal electricity grid can barely hide the portraits of the Sadrs on display on walls, mosques and teahouses. And the Sadrs look equally determined from the windshields of the thousands of cars winding through these noisy and dusty streets.
"What are you doing with that camera? Who gave you permission to shoot here?" asks a man in his fifties who fails to produce any type of ID. The discussion ends immediately after we explain that we have the blessing of Brahim Jawary, now busy with prayers at the mosque opposite his office.
"We live well, we help each other and the situation is improving by the day," a young man tells DW while he glances around from the stall were he sells cigarettes in Chouadr Avenue, Sadr City's main artery. Behind him, a poster celebrates the Americans' pullout last December: "The time of tyrants went, it's time for construction and prosperity," reads the slogan flanked by the Sadrs and the image of two Mahdi militiamen armed with bazookas and assault rifles.
But despite multimillion-dollar programs to rebuild Sadr City, homes are still in disrepair in Sadr City, electricity supply is scarce and streets are often flooded with sewage from long-neglected pipes. Besides, trash pickup is erratic and residents often dump their trash onto the potholed streets.
Many point out that the 38-year-old cleric has used the delivery of basic services and aid as a means of building political influence. True or not, this suburb still languishes as a symbol for political incompetence and corruption. The lack of the most basic infrastructures is rife:
"The whole district is excessively overcrowded, there are three or four families living in each house," Ali Jabar tells DW from the unpaved alley where his children play soccer between garbage sacks and a burnt car. "Most of us are unemployed so we depend on the charity from relatives and neighbors."
The 52-year old moved to his brother's house after his was hit by a rocket. Others left following death threats by the myriad of militias still overrunning the country. 2006 marked the end of centuries of peaceful coexistence between different faiths in Iraq. Sectarian violence would then reshape Baghdad's demography. Kadaa Jasib was one of the many who found suddenly themselves in the wrong place and at the wrong time:
"We lived in Al-Mansur neighborhood - a Sunni district in western Baghdad - but the militias gave us 48 hours to leave our home. Today we are back at my parents' house where we share 100 square meters with two other families," Jasib told DW. The 47-year-old electrician spent three years in Syria before he finally crossed the Tigris to this slum in eastern Baghdad.
But Sadr City is still far from being a safe haven. Since early January, dozens of homosexuals have been bludgeoned to death here. Local NGOs and witnesses believe Moqtada Al Sadr's militiamen are behind the attacks.
A city of suprises
Abdullah Abbas is also a displaced but he enjoys the rare privilege of having a house of his own in Sadr City. He is the guard of the Jewish cemetery, a sacred place surrounded by concrete walls, but which is no longer visited by the relatives of the deceased.
"I arrived here from Mosul in 2006. I had to leave because the insurgents were launching rockets right behind my house," he told DW from his residence with a view of 3,000 gravestones. He is Sunni Muslim married to a Shiite but he claims he has not felt discrimination or harassment in this predominantly Shiite stronghold.
Paradoxically, those tombs may lie over one of the largest oil reserves in the country. Last month, the Ministry of Oil announced that "there is a huge oil lake beneath the surface of Sadr City." Far from being happy, Ayad Athary, a local taxi driver, speaks of a "mockery of fate."
"I spend more than half of my salary on fuel, either for the car of for the power generator back home," he complained from his battered Iranian car.
"Who could possibly expect to live in such misery nine years after Saddam was toppled?"
Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Baghdad
Editor: Rob Mudge