Sadr City MP a 'Man of the People, Defending Iraq Against US Occupiers'

As he strolls through a bustling street in Baghdad's Sadr City, Falah Hassan Shanshal shakes hands, waves to locals on the cafe terraces and beams at everyone he meets.

But to survive in this notorious district of Baghdad, charm is not enough.

Shanshal is an MP for Sadr City, the heart of Shiite radicalism synonymous with misery and a no-go area for many.

"I am a child of this district, the town of the poor," he says, asked about his popularity in this battleground of political ideology.

He portrays himself as the defender of Iraqi sovereignty confronting the American "occupier", a theme which has much resonance with the locals of this huge shantytown in northeastern Baghdad, the bastion of anti-American firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Abandoning the thundering four-wheel drives of his official convoy and dressed in black shirt and trousers, he strolled with a journalist along one of the streets of Sadr City.

"Here, there are no longer any people who thank the Americans. The people were happy to see the end of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship," he says. "But today, they think of the Americans as an occupying force."

On October 21, US ground and air forces pounded the district for six hours keeping the entire 2.5 million residents awake throughout the night.

At the end of the fighting, a US commander announced the death of 49 "criminals". The Iraqi authorities spoke of 17 dead and more than 50 wounded, including women and children.

Shanshal, 41, his face round and bearded, is still furious at the raid. "The occupying forces carried out a massacre," he charges.

He heads a parliamentary group calling for the creation of a commission, the first of its kind, to monitor the American forces and ensure they abide by UN Resolution 1546 of June 2004 that gave them legal cover to be in Iraq.

During the walk, the politician stops to greet a TV repairman in his tiny improvised stall.

At the shop, which is also where local children buy their schoolbooks, he waves to customers at a nearby open-air restaurant.

"Here, there are many people who don't know how to read or write, but they have good hearts and want to live freely," explains Shanshal, a former printer.

"During the Saddam era, this district was abandoned. There was no drinking water, no sewage system and no electricity. After the Americans arrived, a lot of money was stolen and the suffering continued."

After his election in 2005, Shanshal pushed a number of urbanisation schemes, fought corruption and worked hard to develop his image as an accessible and honest politician.

Visitors pop round to his little office with its green velvet armchairs. A similarly coloured rug blocks out the dazzling sun while on the wall there is a large photo of a pilgrim dressed in white visiting Mecca.

On another wall is a photo of Shanshal in a smart grey outfit, complete with tie, posing alongside Moqtada al-Sadr, the strongman of the district who contests the government's authority.

"Here Moqtada's orders are followed to the letter," explains Shanshal, who campaigned under a banner of Islamic nationalism with the young Sadr.

"It is the occupying forces who are creating problems for the Mahdi Army," he adds in reference to the radical Shiite leader's powerful militia.

"But we will confront them in a peaceful manner. We are going to organise demonstrations to highlight the American abuses against the Iraqi people," says this father of nine and grandfather of two.

"The occupying forces do not respect Iraqi sovereignty, and we call on the government to end this state of affairs," he adds with a tone of defiance.

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