Baghdad's slums: fertile recruiting ground for political parties

Baghdad's slums: fertile recruiting ground for political parties
Illegal slums have mushroomed across the Iraqi capital Baghdad since the 2003 American invasion, with the tacit encouragement of corrupt political groups.
4 min read
11 November, 2015
Illegal slums have become recruiting grounds for political parties and militias [Getty]

Khalil Ghanim al-Zayyadi is an Iraqi man in his 40s who lives in a basic, illegally constructed home that lacks most essential services, however he believes his home has been the best thing to happen to him after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Al-Zayyadi who used to be a simple farmer in the town on Mishkhab, in the governorate of Najaf south of Baghdad, believes that he has climbed the social ladder by becoming an urban resident of the capital Baghdad, to the envy of many of his friends and relatives back home.

The former farmer told al-Araby al-Jadeed that his transformation started three months after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, when al-Zayyadi left his farm land in the trust of his cousins, sold some of his livestock and moved to lived on an abandoned military site in Baghdad.

Al-Zayyadi then illegally seized a piece of land belonging to the Iraqi ministry of finance, where he built the house in which he currently resides.

     Official figures released by the ministry of housing at the end of 2013 reveal the existence of 335 illegal slums in Baghdad

The farmer from Mishkhab later joined Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, which allowed him to host rural immigrants and grant them free plots of land around his house, which resulted in al-Zayyadi lone house to be at the centre of an illegal slum of over 430 houses.

Under militia control

Official figures released by the ministry of housing at the end of 2013 reveal the existence of 335 illegal slums in Baghdad alone, however Mohammad al-Daami, a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council's construction committee thinks these figures are a low estimate.

According to al-Daami, every area in Baghdad has seen the development of an adjacent illegal slum that survives by providing services to the residents of the original area, thus the number of slums now equals the number of Baghdad's neighbourhoods.

"Illegal slums started appearing in Baghdad soon after the American invasion, but were at first limited to squatters taking over government buildings, but then it turned into a serious when government lands were seized and houses, shops and roads were erected at lightening speed," said al-Daami.

"These slums then appointed leaders and each slum became connected to an influential political party, making them recruitment grounds providing the party with followers and supporters," added al-Daami.

The civil servant who has been working to provide illegal slums with essential services estimates that Baghdad's various slums are home to over 2.5 million people.

"Providing these slums with services is like building infrastructure for a new capital within the capital," said al-Daami.

However, political analyst Adnan al-Haj does not believe the slums are a result of a housing crisis or an attempt by their residents to improve their living conditions by moving to the capital.

"It is a systematic process by the ruling parties to relocate the largest possible number of people from Iraq's southern governorates into the capital to insure the sectarian majority in Baghdad on the one hand and to have a reserve of supporters and defenders on the other," said al-Haj.

     A simple inspection of a slum adjacent to Baghdad's Jamila neighbourhood resulted in the confiscation of hundreds of weapons

According to al-Haj, every illegal slum is controlled by a political party or religious group, which is reflected in the picture and signs that are portrayed in these areas.

The creation of a slum

Al-Haj has observed that the first step to the creation of a slum is the establishment of an office representing a political party or religious authority, which then grants the surrounding lands to its supporters.

"Within no time, a city full of simple houses, shops and roads is created and becomes a reality, and no municipal or security authority can interfere for fear of punishment by the slum's political or religious sponsor," said al-Haj.

"The slums are a security nightmare that cannot be controlled because of a lack of data on the residents, in addition to the lack of security and police stations, which makes them ideal locations for criminal gangs," said Colonel Ali Nima al-Saedi, an intelligence officer at the ministry of interior.

Al-Saedi told al-Araby al-Jadeed that a simple inspection of a slum adjacent to Baghdad's Jamila neighbourhood resulted in the confiscation of hundreds of weapons from handguns and automatic rifles to anti-tank missiles and mortars.

Al-Saedi believes that most slums contain a full arsenal of weapons and ammunitions that is regularly stockpiled by groups and political parties who view these areas and their residents as armies that can be mobilised against any threat.

Meanwhile, Abu Amir, a 42-year-old resident of a slum next to Sadr City, east of Baghdad, proudly declares his allegiance to the Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, headed by Qais al-Khazali, who gave him a piece of land and money to build the house he currently lives in.

Abu Amir told al-Araby al-Jadeed that all the 2000 residents of his slum are loyal supporters of the Asaib, because the group has enabled them to own property in the capital, and the support of slum residents has made the Asaib militia the largest in Baghdad, with over 250,000 members.