Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq

February 19, 2008

Thank God for journalists like Patrick Cockburn: diligent, intelligent, clear-eyed, brave, experienced. In Muqtada al Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, his third book on the country, he assembles a narrative out of the conflicting mash of self-serving accounts, propaganda and rumour over the last bloody five years.

In doing so, he renders all of us who write and worry about Iraq in his debt. Cockburn has been travelling to and reporting on Iraq since 1978, returning even as recently as last month. He witnessed the many phases of Shia political convulsion, from the first Baathist crackdown against the Shia Islamist Dawa party in the 1970s, through the conflicts of loyalties during the Iran-Iraq war, the doomed uprising after the Kuwait war in 1991, and Saddam’s attempts to manipulate the religious revival in Iraq in the 90s by allowing (briefly) some space for Muqtadr’s father. Mohammed Baqr al Sadr was a senior cleric, who managed to preach against US sanctions, alcohol, immodesty and secular authority before he was executed, along with two of his sons, in 1999. Muqtada’s rise with his Mehdi Army has its roots in the reverence afforded to his Sadr antecedents.

The background and Iraqi Shia context that Cockburn carefully explains are important to understanding the paradoxes and murderous complexities that came rushing out of Pandora’s box after the fall of Saddam. He is particularly good at describing the Barchester Chronicle-like feuding and bitching between the different grand Shia clerical families and religious strains in the Holy City of Najaf. He is equally informative about the disconnect between the Shia parties who returned from exile in Tehran after the war and Moqtada’s seething sans culottes of the Shia slums.  Cockburn carefully unpicks rivalries and political switchbacks and manages to explain (no easy task) various entangled episodes: the mob-murder of the moderate Sayyid Khoei in Najaf just days after Baghdad fell in 2003 for which the Americans later tried to arrest Muqtada; the appointment of Nuri al Maliki (who?) as prime minister; and the surprising Mehdi Army ceasefire during the recent surge.

Cockburn shows that, despite the “firebrand cleric” label and the demonisation, Muqtada has kept a constant path: opposing the American occupation while maintaining a political platform as head of a half-starved urban underclass. The Americans have tried to eliminate Muqtada, by war, politics and denouncing him as an Iranian stooge, but have never afforded his movement the respect that his constituency should command. “Political solution” and “security” have become Iraq’s chicken-and-egg that Muqtada needs to grapple with as much as anyone else in the conflict. Can he control the violent excesses of his militia? For that matter, can any party in Iraq control its thugs? There’s no answer yet.

Reviewer: Wendell Steavenson has written on Iraq for Slate.com, the Financial Times Magazine and Granta. She has also written a book on Iraq that Grove Atlantic is publishing at the end of this year.