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Layers of graffiti on walls tell history of Iraq war

Leila Fadel
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
A wall that surrounds a school in Amil has layers of graffiti and posters that tell the story of Iraq's war over nearly 6 years. (Hussein Kadhim/MCT)

BAGHDAD - Iraq is a nation of walls: tall concrete blast walls built during the past six years, ancient mud-brick barricades that date to antiquity and walls built of various materials from the centuries in between. The newest walls protect Iraqis from one another, but they also divide families. They separate the government from the people, and foreigners from Iraqis.

The walls don't just stand there; they're a constantly changing record of recent history.

Idyllic murals of flowers and scenic canoe rides mask bullet holes and graffiti, and campaign posters for the candidates who are running in provincial elections Jan. 31 paper many of the remaining free surfaces.

Peel away the layers, however, and you'll find Iraq's recent history: the U.S.-led invasion nearly six years ago, the Sunni Muslim insurgency, a sectarian war and now low-level but steady violence in a year of elections.

In two neighborhoods, one that surrounds a water-purification plant in the Sunni city of Fallujah, the other in Baghdad's poor Shiite Muslim district of Amil, once controlled by the Mahdi Army militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, two walls tell two histories of the last six years.

A wall that surrounds a school in Amil has layers of graffiti and posters that tell the story of Iraq's war over nearly 6 years. (Hussein Kadhim/MCT)


It was in Fallujah that the U.S.-led invasion came to grief. Sunnis, disenfranchised and marginalized by an invasion that gave dominance to Iraq's Shiite majority, lost their jobs when the U.S. disbanded Saddam Hussein's army and closed factories. Homegrown rebel groups allied with the foreign-led insurgents of al-Qaida in Iraq rather than tolerate a Western military on their soil.

The province rebelled, and two punishing U.S. offensives devastated Fallujah. Ultimately, though, the province was unwilling to live under the harsh interpretation of Islam that al-Qaida in Iraq enforced after declaring the region an Islamic state, and the Sunni Awakening movement to drive it out was born. The province is relatively calm now.

Along the low stucco wall that snakes around the water plant, Bassam al-Hamadi has stood guard for four years and watched the face of the wall change.

Spray-painted on the wall are the words "God Bless Saddam." Another layer of spray paint obscures some of the words. A banner covers both: "Choose from those who guide you to the good, not those who cheat you." It's by the Independent Bloc of One Homeland, a party that opposes the decentralized federal structure sought by Kurds and the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The Independent Bloc of One Homeland, like many Sunnis, fears that this would break Iraq into three nations.

It's one party of hundreds that are vying for seats on the provincial council, and its slogan brings the wall into 2009, when more than 14,500 candidates are competing for about 440 seats in provincial assemblies.

Hamadi peeled away one poster to reveal what was underneath.

"You can still see it," he said, uncovering graffiti celebrating the group whose rule paralyzed his family and him as violence swept the province and a puritanical code was enforced on this tribal culture.

"Long live al Qaida," it read. "Down with the Iraqi police." Spray paint masks that slogan, and there's new graffiti proclaiming: "Long live the Anbar Revolutionists."

Fallujah has had a tumultuous history from 2003 to today: anti-American militants-turned-revolutionaries in alliance with al-Qaida in Iraq, who then joined the Awakening militia and now serve as cops.

Hamadi gingerly restored the poster, which showed Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a Sunni sheik who's credited with sowing the seeds of the Awakening movement, which turned on al-Qaida in Iraq in Anbar province. He was killed in a car bombing in 2007.

Today, women in Fallujah show their faces, and residents once again smoke on the streets. On this wall alone, the faces of two female provincial council candidates smile from posters.

The Coalition of Iraqi Awakening and the National Independent People have appropriated Abu Risha's visage - and images of the Iraqi police - for their campaign posters.

A banner for the Iraqi Islamic Party competes with Abu Risha's face on the wall. The Iraqi Islamic Party was the first Sunni group to enter Iraqi politics, and many of its members were assassinated for joining the Shiite-dominated national political system.

"With us your life has value," the yellow poster promises. The party linked to the Iraqi Islamic Party calls itself the Bloc of the Tribes and Intellectuals of Anbar, hoping to draw the backing of the tribal structure that's credited with calming the province.

"Our way to a better future," reads a poster with a picture of a sunflower, also promising "integrity ... credibility ... ability." Other posters campaign against foreign influence, whether American or Iranian. "Together to kick out the Persian and American Occupations," one says.

"This wall tells the story of our horror," Hamadi said. "God knows, in a day, in a second, things could change and this wall could change again. We used to see dead bodies thrown here. We never imagined that police would control this area."


In the streets of the Amil neighborhood in Baghdad, where sectarian warfare controlled the lives of poor Shiites and the few Sunnis who weren't run out, Sadr still watches from the billboards. The firebrand Shiite cleric, who inherited a grassroots movement of the poor and disenfranchised from his dead father, is shown holding open his hands in prayer above the traffic that flows into the neighborhood.

The Sadrists started out as the protectors of the Shiites and a national resistance movement, but evolved into sectarian killers and extortionists in the eyes of many, and the apparent support that parts of the militia got from Iran further tarnished their image. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent the Iraqi army to attack the Mahdi Army in southern Iraq and in Baghdad's Sadr City district, and many were killed, have fled or melted away.

Here, the writing on the wall tells the Shiite story: the creation of the Mahdi Army and its campaign against the U.S. military and the militia's Shiite rivals.

A wall surrounding a girls' school now is painted white, but the outline of the black Arabic script shows through.

"Just like Saddam, Badr will go," the slogan says. The line refers to the Badr Organization - the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - which has been absorbed into Iraq's national security forces. The top ledge of the wall is covered in rusted concertina wire embellished with discarded pink and yellow plastic bags that got caught on the razor-sharp teeth.

Girls leaving school sashay past the graffiti toward a national police checkpoint at the end of the road. Just over a year ago these checkpoints were manned by plainclothes militiamen.

"Let it be known, Bush, that your soldiers are under our control," the black-painted words read through the white paint. The militia and the man who decided to invade Iraq are no longer in power.

Another slogan, written during Maliki's assault on the Mahdi Army, refers to "Al Maliki al Aar," Maliki the disgraceful. Another calls the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq "Abdel Hakim al Haqeer," replacing his last name, Hakim, with the word despicable. The words were hastily painted over with swirls of black spray paint.

Hakim isn't a popular man in Amil, judging by a campaign poster for his party in the local elections, Shaheed al-Mihrab, the martyrs of the places of worship. "With you, with you," the posters say. Many Shiites view the powerful party as a group of elite exiles, and some of the posters are ripped through his face.

Early in 2007, Kurdish soldiers were brought here to man the sectarian fault line between Sunni and Shiite Arabs. The Mahdi Army tried to force them out.

"No, no to the Peshmerga," shows through a mess of scribbles and white paint, referring to the Kurdish militia, which now is part of the Iraqi army. The Peshmerga have since returned to Kurdish territory in the north.

For all its brutality, the Mahdi Army had some pithy slogans. "Beware of the lions of the daylight and the foxes of the night," read its words on the same wall.

On top of all the other layers of graffiti, the latest to grace the wall in Amil is that of the national security forces, which report to Maliki. "Long live the National Police," proclaims the graffiti in red, black and blue, probably painted by the security forces themselves.

More layers are no doubt yet to be painted or plastered, but some residents have had enough of the chaos and mess, both on the walls and in political life.

"We should have clean walls and clean hearts," said Mohammed Jassim, 42, a barber in Amil.

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