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

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.

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.

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"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.

Mohamed says fellow Sadrists broke up a gang that had kidnapped an Egyptian, and found they carried Badr Brigade identity cards. He claims Sadr does not play the sectarian game in Iraq.

"Moqtada is the best cleric, because he does not make a difference between Shiites and Sunnis," says sister Fatima.

"They are all Muslims, no difference," says Mohamed. He tells a story in which a senior Sadr official was jailed for a month after making some divisive statements.

"Those accusations [of sectarian killings] are just rumors to accuse the Mahdi Army. The claims go to Mr. Moqtada, and he investigates, and says 'No one from the Mahdi Army did this.' "

"God willing we will continue," concludes Mohamed. "All of us are servants of Imam Mahdi."

Passing exams and riding bikes

While Methboub says "there is no life in Iraq," this family's story is not all sad, and is often punctuated by noisy laughter – especially aimed at the treatment of Hussein in the trial, and at the hapless efforts of the new Iraqi government and Americans to bring order.

The good news: The children in school passed their exams; daughter Amal continues to write in her diary, and daughter Zainab – married last year – is expecting a baby in August, though she is nervous about the birth, and is "leaving it all in the hands of God."

Zainab's husband, a security guard, was able to buy the family a small generator to cope with the summer heat wave, and the lowest amount of electricity generation in Iraq since the US occupation began.

There has even been a bright moment for Mahmoud, 12, despite the trauma of another bomb blast. He still hawks Pepsi on the street, and since last year dreamed of buying a bicycle. He was so infatuated with a bike that he was secretly using some of his $1-per-day earnings to "rent" rides on bikes owned by his friends.

A Monitor reader stepped in and bought the boy his choice of bikes – an 18-speed machine, which Mahmoud insisted be fitted with an Iraqi flag on the front axle. Pride now spreads across his face, and he shows off the trophy in the Spartan living room of the tiny family apartment; his sisters laugh at the moment of joy.

Surviving in Baghdad

His excitement couldn't have been more different from the day before, when Mahmoud had to run for it after the bomb. He said he "felt something hot on my back," and then, with another boy, "we saw people dead and burned."

Methboub says electricity was out in the neighborhood, so many people were outside. A woman went up to an ice-seller on the street, and asked him to watch her bag while she shopped; within moments the bag exploded killing up to seven people.

"People are crazy and crying," laments Methboub. Her nephew was nearby, and helped carry bodies into cars. "He tried to help an old man who was wounded, who said: 'Don't carry me! Please run away – there may be another bomb!' "

An earlier explosion, just days before, was close to a market and a butcher shop. The bomb went off near a very poor woman who sold slippers. In the days following, Iraqi police and soldiers blanketed the area, setting up checkpoints and checking cars for explosives. While buying bread a few days later, Amal found security forces looking for the driver of a suspicious parked car.

"Who's hurt? It's the poor people who are hurt," says Amal, of efforts by the new government of Prime Minister Mouri al-Maliki to staunch the bloodshed. "He can't do it alone – he needs the Americans. But Maliki, he is sitting in his house [in the fortified Green Zone] every day; he's very safe."

"They don't agree among themselves, so how can people agree with them?" complains Fatima, preparing potatoes in a bowl, while Mahmoud fixes his bike chain. "Their faces don't make you feel safe."

She is no fan of American forces either – thanks to a string of murder allegations by US troops against Iraqi civilians – though Fatima had no qualms with them "coming to Iraq as friends." Even the death a month ago of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, is not likely to improve things.

"[US forces] do many bad things, so people have a right to hate them," says Fatima, matter-of-factly. "They killed one [Zarqawi], but have given birth to 100 like him."

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