In deeply troubled Iraq, it’s hard to find a hero who straddles the sectarian divide. Othman Ali al-Ubeydi was one such hero.
The Sunni high school kid drowned rescuing Shiite pilgrims who jumped off a bridge into the Tigris River to escape a stampede started by rumors of a suicide bomber.
Al-Ubeydi’s heroic action gave him instant hero status and provided a glimmer of hope to an Iraq that often seems close to civil war.
But three months later, in a city that wakes up daily to explosions, gunfire and the latest toll of sectarian murder, the memory of 18-year-old al-Ubeydi’s bravery has faded and even become fodder for a macabre joke making the rounds in Baghdad.
“So much happens in Iraq every day that it’s not difficult to forget him and what he has done,” said Naseer al-Ani of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group. “But we must not, because we can use what he has done to frustrate those who are trying so hard to divide us.”
Much of that division stems from the Sunni Arabs’ reluctance to accept the loss to majority Shiites of the privileged status they enjoyed for generations.
“Allah created Othman specially for that day,” al-Ubeydi’s father, Ali Abdul-Hafez al-Ubeydi, said at the family home. “He died so that Sunnis and Shiites can be united in Iraq.”
Al-Ubeydi was not the only Sunni Arab from the Azamiyah district who rushed to the rescue of the pilgrims during the Aug. 31 stampede. But the fact that he died made him a national icon, burnished by the fact that he lived in Azamiyah, a Baghdad stronghold of opposition to the Shiite-dominated government and its U.S. backers.
Senior politicians sent representatives to his funeral and many promised his family financial aid. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad likened him to the New York City firefighters who died trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, received the family at his office. Their home is adorned with pictures of al-Jaafari playfully carrying al-Ubeydi’s 5-year-old sister, Shahd. Radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr invited al-Ubeyid’s father to his home at the holy city of Najaf and later sent him a pistol, a much prized gift among Iraqi men.
A picture of al-Ubeydi flanked by two famous Sunni and Shiite mosques graces many walls and shop windows in Sunni Azamiyah and Shiite Kazimiyah, reflecting a widely held yearning for an end to the bloodshed.
Al-Ubeyid’s bed in the room he shared with two of the 25 extended family members living in the house has been turned into something of a shrine. A pair of jeans and two of his sweat shirts are neatly spread across the bed, along with pink and red plastic flowers. There are photos of him diving into the Tigris in happier times, at school with classmates and with friends posing outside the Kazimiyah mosque the week he died.
Witnesses said Al-Ubeyid pulled seven Shiite pilgrims to shore, then drowned trying to save a woman who dragged him down.
Disillusioned at a young age
Now a joke is going around that plays on his name, Othman, a 7th century Muslim ruler infamous to Shiites. Supposedly, the joke goes, when the woman heard the young man’s name she dragged him and herself down to their deaths.
Al-Ubeydi had ambitions to become an engineer, but had grown despondent, his mother, Najla Mohammed Abdul-Jabar, recalls.
“Conditions in Iraq made him feel that life was no longer worth living. He often told me this,” the robed, veiled woman said, sitting next to her husband of 23 years.
It may even have bred a death wish in him.
“He many times ignored the curfew and went out to see what was going on after clashes with the Americans,” his mother said. “He used to come back and say ’how sweet it must be to be martyred.”’