No Forwarding Address

The disintegration of a Baghdad neighborhood

In southern Baghdad, west of the Tigris River and away from the traffic-choked heart of the capital, lies the middle-class neighborhood of Saydia, an area of wide, palm-shaded avenues and ocher-colored villas—some fronted by sloping lawns, others hidden behind tall fences.

At the time of the American invasion of Iraq, the neighborhood was ethnically mixed and relatively desirable. Saddam Hussein’s government had awarded some of the houses to high-ranking military officers, but the community also included nonmilitary Shia and Sunni families, often headed by successful entrepreneurs. A lively commercial drag sliced through the neighborhood and offered a meeting place, often late into the night, for the men and women who lived there.

Today many of the neighborhood’s homes and shops are shuttered or abandoned, and its streets are empty. All but one of the roads into and out of Saydia have been sealed off by the Iraqi forces in an attempt to stem incursions by rival militias and common criminals.

The map below shows one of the streets in this neighborhood as of late 2006, detailing the violence that has been visited on its households over the past two years. A significant proportion of the families that lived here at the time of Saddam Hussein’s fall have fled; at least seven have left Iraq altogether.

Saydia Map

Click here to enlarge this image.

House 1

Occupied by a Sunni family of seven, headed by a well-known businessman. In the spring of 2006, his four-year-old grandson was abducted and ransomed for $20,000. The kidnappers sent a note of apology back with the boy, saying they needed the money to leave Iraq.

House 2

Vacant. Formerly occupied by the Sunni owner of a mineral-water business who turned the house into his base of operations. His success led to the kidnapping and eventual murder of his twenty-three-year-old son (despite the payment of a $70,000 ransom). After threats to another son, the businessman abandoned the house and the business.

House 3

Occupied by a Shia family, which moved in and started paying rent after the house was abandoned by its owner, a former minister in Saddam Hussein’s government. The patriarch and his family fled to Jordan in April 2004, after hearing rumors that a Shia death squad had put them on a blacklist. One son had already survived a murder attempt.

House 4

Vacant, but guarded by distant relatives of the former resident, a fifty-seven-year-old Sunni brigadier in the Iraqi army. After he was arrested and detained by the U.S. military in 2005, he left Iraq to join his two sons in London.

House 5

Occupied (and guarded) by two relatives of the Sunni family that formerly lived here. The family fled to Syria after a Shia militia group abducted the twenty-nine-year-old son and, two months later, attempted to abduct the mother at an outdoor market. The son was released after the family paid a $10,000 ransom in 2005.

House 6

Occupied by a Sunni family with nine children, headed by a successful entrepreneur. One son was kidnapped in 2005 by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and ransomed for $100,000, plus continuing monthly “protection” payments. The house is now defended by a small band of private security guards.

House 7

Vacant. Formerly occupied by a Shia family of seven. The family fled to Jordan in 2005 after the father, a contractor for the U.S. government, received a death threat for collaboration and survived a failed kidnapping attempt. The father stayed in Iraq to work and now lives in the Green Zone.

House 8

Vacant. Formerly occupied by a Sunni family headed by one of Saddam Hussein’s distant cousins, a high-ranking officer in the Republican Guard who received death threats from the Mahdi Army. The family fled to Dubai in 2006, after a son survived an ambush and several bullet wounds.

House 9

Vacant. Formerly occupied by a Yemeni diplomat. After the assassination of the Egyptian ambassador and several Moroccan diplomats in 2005, his neighbors asked him to leave, fearing he would draw the attention of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

House 10

Vacant. Formerly occupied by a Lebanese family that had lived here for twenty-seven years. In early 2006, the house was ransacked by masked police commandos, who arrested two sons and confiscated money, claiming it was being used to fund al-Qaeda. The sons were later released, and the family fled to Lebanon.

House 11

Vacant. Formerly occupied by a Sunni family. The family fled to Syria in 2005 after the father, a high-ranking Baathist and former military intelligence officer, received death threats from neighborhood Shia militia groups. The house was later confiscated by the Iraqi government.