BAGHDAD — In the country with the world’s third largest reserve of oil, poverty in Baghdad is a constant and seemingly endless problem. Iraq, still mired in widespread sectarian violence, insurgent warfare and political inexperience and instability, has a poverty rate reaching over 35 percent, according to some estimates. The capital of Baghdad, by far the most densely populated metropolitan center in the country, is a microcosm for the problems faced by the rest of the country.
Baghdad, along with the rest of Iraq, relies on a non-inclusive and extremely unequal economy based on oil. With almost unceasing violence and upheaval for the last four decades, the Iraqi government has had few resources to attack social issues, instead focusing time, effort and treasury resources on security issues. This has allowed poverty to take root and has led to a deep divide between the privileged and the poor.
To the east of the city center, there is a suburb district called Sadr City. Formerly known as Saddam City and then Al Thawra, meaning “Revolution City,” this district is by far one of the poorest areas of Baghdad. Most neighborhoods in the district, which is populated by Shia Muslims, have no water or electricity, even though they are still inside the city limits of Baghdad. The roads remain unpaved or extremely underserviced. Sewage runs down the streets. In some cases, five or more families live in single-unit homes.
Lack of security for decades at a time in Sadr City led to the creation and formalization of a professional and lethal militia called the Mahdi Army. This militia fought the coalition forces when they arrived in Iraq in 2003 and continues to train and fight in the district, although it was officially disbanded in 2008. Marching through the streets last year as ISIS came knocking at the door, the militia, which has become a kind of parallel military force to the Iraqi Armed Forces, showed its strength with tens of thousands of uniformed, armed fighters ready to defend their home in Baghdad.
This militia, born of poverty, anger and insecurity, poses a renewed threat of Iraqi civil war in the future. But for now, they work in conjunction with the official Iraqi Army to fight back against ISIS, hoping that U.S. and other forces will not become involved in Iraq again.
While Sadr City may be extremely poor, it does not compare to the abject poverty of Teneke Village, a slum of the slum. Sitting directly outside Sadr City, Teneke Village is built on top of and around the landfills and garbage piles of the residents inside of Sadr City and Baghdad. The people who live here make their homes from the discarded and extremely hazardous empty oil barrels and other trash they can find. Whole families live on a single mattress, surrounded by old oil dripping down the sides of their makeshift home, shared with rats and other creatures that feed off waste. Basic needs are going unmet, from school to clean water and health services. Some days there is not much hope of finding food.
From this poverty, a political movement has risen and gained traction: the Sadrists. Claiming to support and represent the poorest populations in Baghdad and Iraq, this extremely religious, conservative and violent group has entered into politics at the highest level. Its support comes from the votes of those people who live in places like Teneke Village, where hope is hard to come by. The leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, is a Shia cleric and influential politician who has played the political scene for a long time in Baghdad. The namesake for Sadr City, al-Sadr was the leader of the Mahdi Army until its official disbandment in 2008 and remains in control of the lingering and powerful, militia forces.
After years of war, the United States officially withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011. The U.S. has pumped almost $53 billion into Iraq in civilian aid in a modern-day version of the Marshall Plan, but the efforts have not seemed to dramatically improve the poverty rate in Iraq. In Baghdad, electricity only runs up to three hours a day, even for paying customers. Sewage is pumped without sanitation directly into the desert. Most pressingly, one in four households have no access to clean water.
For some, financial situations have become so dire and immediate that the only solution is the illegal sale of organs on the black market of Baghdad. Al Jazeera reports that “abject poverty across Iraq is fuelling an illegal trade in human organs,” which is centered in the capital. Iraqi law permits the voluntary donation of organs, but does not permit the sale of them. Even so, dealers are making thousands of dollars on each organ they sell from desperate donator to desperate patient. It is impossible for hospitals to differentiate between voluntary donations and paid donations, making sure the black market for organs will continue to thrive as poverty reaches new levels in Baghdad.
– Caitlin Huber