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Former Adversaries Join to Revive Neighborhood

Shiite and Sunni work together to bring power, health care and security to Baghdad community.

April 15, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — There was no electricity, no health care, no open shops, no sewage system, no police and no one to turn to for help. The people were scared, hungry and tired, and many children were falling ill.

So religious leaders stepped in. From loudspeakers mounted atop mosques in the low-income west Baghdad neighborhood known as Tobchi, sheiks and imams sent out a call, not to prayer, but to work. They called on doctors, electricians, police, engineers, shopkeepers and laborers to help their community get back to life.

By Monday, many had come forward. Sunni and Shiite. Agents of Saddam Hussein's regime and victims of its repression.

If there is hope for a bright future in this city, still convulsing from the effects of war, a model might be this neighborhood of simple concrete apartment buildings and working-class people less than a mile from the Tigris River.

"There are no Arabs, no Kurds, no Sunni, no Shia," said Sheik Mohammed Bakr Basri, 31, one of the organizers of the back-to-work campaign. "After Saddam we will all be united. The regime tried to divide us."

Almost from the moment Hussein's government fell, this city of about 5 million people became unhinged with widespread looting, chaos and fear. People were paralyzed, and no one went to work. But there was no suggestion that the Iraqis bore any responsibility for what was happening on their streets. They blamed the U.S. for the upheaval and expected Americans to repair the damage.

That attitude has begun to change in ways that are visible in many parts of the city, but especially in Tobchi, a neighborhood formally known as Al Salam.

It was seen up in a cherry picker Monday, where two residents, one Sunni and the other Shiite, worked together to repair power lines. It was evident in a health clinic where a physician and a dentist volunteered to treat their neighbors. And it was there in the piles of looted goods that had been turned over to Sunni and Shiite mosques by residents who experienced a change of heart.

"Saddam confiscated our capabilities and possibilities," said Sheik Mohammed Taqi, 27, a neighborhood Shiite religious leader.

"After Saddam, brotherhood has been revived between the people."

The call went out Saturday and then again Sunday. It echoed from the minarets of Shiite and Sunni mosques. Many observers feared that the collapse of the government would lead to sectarian violence and a fracturing of the nation. It may still. But on Monday, Tobchi stood out as a symbol of what Iraq could become -- in a positive sense.

Muktar Abdu Ilah, 28, responded to the call. Like his neighbors, Ilah did not go to work when bombs were falling on Baghdad. He stayed home when U.S. troops entered the capital. He went back only when Basri asked him to. On Sunday, he pulled on his blue coveralls and went to the local electric-company office.

He found other workers there, like Amer Hamid, 33, and Fadhal Jawad, 42. For two days, they went around their neighborhood repairing downed lines, pulling shrapnel out of generators and righting electric poles. The U.S. did not bomb the power plants, but the city lost electricity because so many lines were knocked down during the attack.

The workers hoped to restore electricity to all 50,000 residents of their neighborhood by Monday night. "This pride that we have, this is due to the mosques," said Mustafa Mohammed, 40, a fisherman who has lived in the neighborhood since he was 4. "The Sunni and the Shia have unified to do the work."

Dr. Samer Ameen, 37, is a thoracic specialist. He also stayed home during the war, fearful of the streets and uncertain of the future. Ameen is a Sunni Muslim but when Basri knocked at his door Saturday, he immediately responded. With a few other doctors and a dentist, they reopened the local clinic they call Hay al Salam, which means "district of peace."

Since the clinic opened Sunday, more than 200 patients have passed through the doors. Conditions are spartan: Ameen examines children by laying them across his desk, then reaches into boxes piled on the floor to dispense medicine. The cartons were looted from the local hospital and pharmacy, then returned to Basri, who handed them over to the clinic.

Ameen is delighted to be back at work but worried by what he sees. With no electricity there is no sewage treatment, which means contaminated water and many cases of diarrhea, especially in children.

"Please ask your people to help us soon for sewage disposal and safe water," he said, pausing from his examination of Mohammed Thabit, 1, who was ill with diarrhea.

"Many of the poor children here will die of amoebic dysentery and gastroenteritis. You made a great job to destroy the regime. But continue your good job, rehabilitate the country and give us help, fast."

Electricity, health care and security are the three most pressing needs of the community and, in each case, the community has begun to act to save itself.

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