Baghdad's Shiites taste freedom, tension

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- With no one else to do it, mosque preacher Amar al-Saadi took charge Thursday in Saddam City, a Baghdad slum dominated by Shiite Muslims and named for the Sunni Muslim leader they despised.

It was Baghdad's first full day after President Saddam Hussein's hold on the capital fell apart, and Saddam City was filled with tensions veering toward violence and a joy bordering on anarchy.

Amid the imam's attempts to restore order, the neighborhood exploded with a pent-up freedom that had festered for 30 years.

In the power vacuum left by the regime's demise, the sense of liberation tinged with confusion was especially strong in this neighborhood of Shiites, who make up the majority in Iraq and were long suppressed by Saddam's mostly Sunni government.

For the first time, they were free to lash out against symbols of Saddam's regime and speak openly about their hatred for the Iraqi leader -- or, like al-Saadi, free to flex their authority.

Although it's the Americans who won them this freedom, some of them say they'll resist U.S. occupation if they overstay their welcome.

"They're welcome in Iraq so long as they can get rid of Saddam for good," Mohammed Abed, who owns an electrical appliance shop with his brother, said the Americans. But, he added, "if our clerics give the word, we will fight them with our bare hands."

Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and stand to benefit the most from a new order.

if created by democratic elections. Their leaders say they want a political share of power that's proportionate to their percentage of the population.

Tens of thousands of people were in the streets of Saddam City, defacing Saddam portraits with graffiti -- "death to Saddam" and "down with Saddam" -- and hauling back loot plundered from the city center.

Someone detonated explosives in an apparent suicide attack at a nearby U.S. checkpoint, wounding four soldiers. The exact location was not immediately available.

Neighbors gathered and painted a dark picture of lives disrupted by a government whose power was centered on Saddam's family from Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

"Our joy cannot be described by words," said Raad Abed, 27. "For many years, we have been persecuted and oppressed by Saddam's regime."

Abed stood outside his home with his brother Mohammed, 33, and 6-year-old twin daughters. With him were neighbors including Ali Hassan, an army deserter from the Republican Guard.

"I have escaped the army three years ago and I have since led a life in the shadows," said Hassan, 29, who said he left because he was mistreated.

Saddam City, home to an estimated 2 million people, suffered years of repression and violence from the deposed president's security forces. The government banned Shiite religious rituals, and Saddam's officers fired on Shiite protesters in 1999.

Along with anti-Saddam graffiti, the long banned Shiite cry of "Ya Ali," or "Oh, Ali," appeared Thursday. It refers to Imam Ali, a revered Shiite considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

The Shiites revolted after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, hoping U.S. troops would rescue them. The Americans did not, and Saddam's army crushed the Shiite uprising within days.

Not surprisingly, it was the Shiites who were most pleased when U.S. forces arrived Wednesday in the capital. Chanting, they enlisted American soldiers and equipment to topple Saddam's massive statue in Firdos Square.

And with its history of Shiite oppression, Saddam City was a center of that jubilation.

Before Saddam named the district after himself in the '80s, Saddam City was called al-Thawra, or "revolution." Residents now say it should be renamed Madinat al-Sadr -- or city of al-Sadr -- to honor Mohamed Sadeq al-Sadr, a respected Shiite cleric killed with his two sons in 1999. Shiites blame Saddam for their deaths.

The al-Mohsen mosque -- where al-Saadi sat Thursday and gave orders -- was a centerpiece of the 1999 Shiite uprising. After quashing the rebellion, Saddam's army closed the mosque and executed its imam.

On Wednesday, the mosque reopened.