My dinner with Sunnis (and a Shiite minder) in Sadr City

When I asked a friend to help set up interviews with a Shiite family in Sadr City and a Sunni family in a different neighborhood to get a feel for what divides the communities at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, something got lost in translation.

I found myself a few days later in Sadr City sitting cross-legged in the sparsely furnished home of the Dulaimi family, watched over by a stern local captain of the Mahdi Army - a Shiite militia that shares the extreme political and religious views of its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, after whose father the area is named.

As Sunnis who emigrated to the capital from Ramadi 30 years ago, the Dulaimis are about as unrepresentative of Sadr City's population as a family can get. The sprawling and impoverished city of 2 million on Baghdad's eastern edge is Iraq's preeminent Shiite ghetto: about 95 percent of its residents are poor Shiites and the Mahdi Army is the biggest political presence in citizens' lives.

Over a tense meal to break the last fast of Ramadan, the Dulaimis' position in Iraq's clash of the sects shed light on the limits on public speech in the new Iraq, the odd alliances between Sunni and Shiite that seem to defy Iraq's sectarian conflict, and the hopes and fears that will drive Iraq's development in the coming decade.

"All of our days are like holidays now,'' says Bassem Kamil, the burly 34-year-old husband of one of the Dulaimi sisters. He, like everyone else, is sprawled on the floor of their three-room home, since the family's furniture was recently sold to pay school fees and rent. "Just living without Saddam is a blessing. Now all we have to do is get rid of the politicians that rode in on the back of American tanks."

Mr. Kamil and the other Dulaimi men - the women in the household were kept out of sight during the visit - provided an interesting contrast to their Mahdi Army minder, "Abu Zawra," who was ostensibly there for my protection but seemed mostly interested in monitoring what the Dulaimis had to say.

Talking about life since the fall of Saddam Hussein, they had much good to say despite the hardships of joblessness and poor services. Haider Dulaimi spoke about how the pension for his deceased father Khalil had been quadrupled by the new regime, to $100 a month.

Still bitter over being kicked out of a computer science program for refusing to join the Baath party in the late 1990s, he points to his youngest brother Ali, a 22-year-old electrical engineering student. "He doesn't have to go through my experience,'' says Haider. "So we have to say things are much better."

This draws a scowl from Abu Zawra. "If things are better it's only because the Mahdi Army is protecting you and working for Sadr City,'' he says. "The politicians and the Americans can't be trusted."

At this, Mr. Kamil and Haider rush to comply. "Yes, most of the benefits in this area have been thanks to the Mahdi Army." As talk turns to politics, all of the men in the room say they didn't vote in last month's constitutional referendum. "We didn't see any benefits in it for us,'' says Mr. Kamil.

I was uncomfortable with Abu Zawra's presence, which I thought was getting in the way of straight answers, but didn't feel I could ask him to leave - particularly since a British journalist was kidnapped and briefly held by a Mahdi Army unit a few weeks before.

Similar militias are dominant in much of the country today, particularly in the Shiite south. For instance, asked if they'll vote in the country's upcoming parliamentary elections in December, both Haider and Mr. Kamil looked to Abu Zawra, who declared "there can be no free elections under occupation," then said they weren't sure.

Though the US has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the dilapidated district in the past few years, the gains aren't clearly visible. The stench of sewage is still ubiquitous and electricity is still intermittent. Asked how much power they're getting today, Ali pipes up with a laugh saying they're still on the "Brazilian system": Four hours off, two on, and four off again - the favored outfield formation for Brazil's soccer team.

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