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Civil strife comes home as a son joins Sadr's army

The Monitor revisits the Methboub family. The youngest son has a new bike; another has joined a radical Shiite militia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 5, 2006


Schoolboy Mahmoud was selling Pepsi on his Baghdad street when the bomb exploded one block up. Trampled as neighbors fled, he went home crying, falling into the comforting arms of his older sisters.

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But that didn't end the horror of that deadly blast three weeks ago for the family of Iraqi widow Karima Selman Methboub and her eight children.

From the end of the corridor in their dilapidated downtown building, the shocked children watched as several bodies were collected on the next street hours after the deadly explosion.

"When you see some dead people, you feel the next time you are the target – like you are in line, waiting after them," says eldest daughter, Fatima. It was the second bomb in a week along the crowded street. "No one can be safe from these explosions," she says, adding that jittery Iraqi soldiers shot someone at the scene as they tried to identify a relative. "No one in Iraq feels safe."

The Monitor has followed the changing emotions of this family, as a window into the lives of ordinary Iraqis, since late 2002, before US forces invaded Iraq. They are typical of Iraq's legions of poor, for whom daily violence – at the hands of insurgents, and more recently sectarian militias – has turned security into an obsession.

And this family's reactions under such pressure are typical, too, leading them to beliefs and actions that they never thought possible after the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled off its plinth April 9, 2003.

While hardly pro-Mr. Hussein, some Methboub family members crave the order and relative security that they remember nostalgically of the dictatorial era. Fatima, 19, even praises the man himself, as a reassuring "father" figure who "smiles very nicely" at the television cameras of the tribunal court, where Hussein faces the death sentence for crimes against humanity.

And one son, Mohamed, has joined the Shiite militia called the Mahdi Army, run by radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mohamed, 21, and fellow family members speak of his good work, including helping to stop one kidnapping and halting gambling and alcohol sales.

They say he has not been involved in revenge attacks against minority Sunnis, which are often attributed to the Mahdi Army and other armed Shiite groups. Before Hussein's fall, Mohamed did a stint in Abu Ghraib prison for car theft; he also had misfortune late last year when the taxi he was leasing was incinerated after a nearby horsecar full of gasoline cans collided with a minibus. Now he plans to join the Iraqi army and will maintain ties to Mr. Sadr's militia.

Mohamed's journey

The bearded young man says he began to follow Mr. Sadr during the anti-US uprising in Najaf in August 2004, but didn't begin volunteering until last February, when the important Shiite shrine in Samarra was destroyed, setting off sectarian killings that have left thousands dead.

Mrs. Methboub, the family matriarch, speaks highly of Mohamed's decision and describes how his unit stopped a kidnapping of a boy by gunmen in three BMW cars near the national theater. "They handed the boy back to his father," she says. The kidnappers were taken to a Sadr office, where Mahdi Army officials "beat them very hard" and found they were policemen who had been planning the kidnap for seven months, for ransom.

"I blame the police," says Methboub, disgusted. "Instead of protecting people, they are trying to kidnap and kill people."

Mohamed's unit has made arrests at gambling dens, and sealed off shops that sell alcohol before opening time, lobbing percussion grenades at them to break windows and send a message to stop.

Sadr's people also control the price of rent for the poor and try to limit the cost of a bottle of propane gas to 1,500 Iraqi dinars – about $1. In the Methboub neighborhood, each bottle sells for 10,000 dinars.

"Every good Muslim should join the Imam Mahdi Army," says Mohamed. He accuses the rival Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia created in exile in Iran more than 20 years ago, of running kidnap gangs for ransom. Shiite gunmen have also been accused of mounting "death squads" that target Sunnis, out of the Ministry of Interior.