BOOK REVIEW:  Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and The Struggle For Iraq (Patrick Cockburn)

Jim Miles

Posted May 8, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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BOOK REVIEW:  Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and The Struggle For Iraq (Patrick Cockburn)

by Jim Miles

Muqtada – Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and The Struggle For Iraq.  Patrick Cockburn.  Scribner (Simon & Schuster), New York. 2008.

An excellent work, Muqtada ends off right where current events pick up with the recent Iraqi army attacks ordered by Nuri al –Maliki in southern Iraq, Basra in particular.  The media view that this was purely an Iraqi effort is put into place with one of author Patrick Cockburn’s closing comments that Maliki “had limited real power” and felt “that he could not move a company of troops without American permission.”  This morning’s news on al-Jazeera fully demonstrates American involvement with the new surge into Sadr City - the Baghdad stronghold of Muqtada’s Mehdi army – supported by American Abrams tanks and aerial bombing. 

Patrick Cockburn has written a fascinating account of Muqtada al-Sadr, with his departure point being the long history of Shiism in the Middle East.  Muqtada neither extols the virtues of his subject and the heroic valour of his resistance, nor does it denigrate the Shia beliefs or the man himself.  There is a fully balanced perspective and a good deal of critical analysis which allows the reader to place Muqtada accurately – or as accurately as can be given considering his elusive nature – within the overall historical context of the war in Iraq. 

A deeper understanding of Muqtada comes indirectly from an understanding of his family’s background, the martyr status of his father and grand-father and the murder of many of his family including his older siblings under the regime of Saddam Hussein.  Much more than simply a radical firebrand cleric, Muqtada is seen as a more complex person “a cautious man” with a “sure instinct for the swift tactical retreat when confronting an opponent of superior strength.”  Coming of age during the unsuccessful Shia rebellion against Saddam, the fault being placed on the lack of American support, and then having to survive through the many years of sanctions and oppression, Muqtada developed a wily sense of survival, knowing when to confront, knowing when to back off, knowing when to disappear altogether. 

His stature arrives from his ongoing life within Iraq, rather than having gone into exile like so many of the elite in the Green Zone, now despised by the average Iraqi masses.  Neither fully in control of nor fully determining the events in Iraq, his stature has increased immensely as the occupation continues.  Never fully in control of his Mehdi army, circumstances carried him along as much as he helped shape them.  The rebellion in Najaf and the subsequent escaping of a murder plot, the civic structure and safety provided by the Mehdi army in Sadr City, the strength of the army in claiming most of Baghdad during the ethnic cleansing of Sunni and Shiite factions, and most recently his successful standoff with the Iraq army in Basra, all have shaped his power and influence.

Other personalities enter into the story.  Most notably from the comments made by Cockburn, would be the complete ineptitude of Paul Bremer who showed a “peculiar inability to learn from his mistakes.”  Bremer fully misjudged Muqtada, with Iraqi ministers “struck by the degree of Bremer’s hatred and how much he belittled Muqtada.”  It was Bremer that underestimated Muqtada in Najaf and with growing Sunni cooperation in the battle, an end of sorts was reached, but “Muqtada had emerged the winner because he had challenged the U.S. led occupation, held off their greatly superior army for weeks, and survived without making concessions that would have weakened him permanently.”  Bremer is not fully faulted for the U.S. failures in Iraq: while his “errors are glaring in retrospect” U.S. actions “were determined by the Washington political agenda” and he received “disastrously poor advice from the returning Iraq exiles.”

Another important figure in the same battleground is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who carries much more seniority and prestige within Southern Iraq.  Sistani took a “quietist stance” in contrast to the Sadrist “activism and missionary zeal.”  Sistani avoided conflict between the Shia clerical leaders and the “all-powerful Iraqi state,” of Saddam Hussein.  Not all is smooth with the Shias as “there lingers a bitter sense of betrayal” because as the Sadrists fought and died, al-Sistani and others “stood by in silence,” or rested in exile.  Sistani “kept his distance from the CPA and would meet none of its officials,” leading to Bremer’s underestimating the determination of the Marji’iyyah [the senior Shia clergy] to force elections, which the Shia community was bound to win, and to insist on a new constitution in which Islam was the primary source of legislation.”  Essentially, the U.S. rhetoric of democracy came in spite of their efforts to quell it. 

Other characters and issues obtain their share of commentary as well.  One of the more significant is Muqtada and the Shia’s relationship with Iran.  Seen here as a “self-fulfilling” prophecy, the continual call to battle by the Americans against Iran has its influence in slowly driving Muqtada toward Iranian contacts based on the need for survival.  Cockburn considers it a “poisonous myth…that the Shia of Iraq are puppets manipulated by Iran,” as the “Sadrist movement was historically anti-Iranian.”  The Iranians could see “the immense advantage to itself of having 160,000 American soldiers stuck in the Iraq quagmire,” and started “to increase its influence by infiltrating the Sadrist movement and Mehdi Army,[along with others]” bringing with them money and military training (hmm, sounds like the American way of operating). 

The Baghdad surge is discussed under the parameters of Washington “outwardly treating the Iraqi administration as sovereign,” but acting “brutal in asserting its authority in private.”  Muqtada lay low during the initial surge, “Keeping his distance form the Iraqi government in the Green Zone” as it was “almost universally loathed by Iraqis because of its failure to provide security or the basics of life.” 

Cockburn’s final analysis considers that “the new government cowering in the Green Zone turned into a kleptocracy comparable to Nigeria or the Congo.”  As a result of the surge “the Shia’s had won and there were few mixed areas left” in Baghdad.  Now as well, a new breed of Sunni warlord is emerging to counteract not only al-Queda, but also the Shia influence in Iraq.  As for what lies in the future, undoubtedly more fighting and destruction, continuing the “disintegration of Iraq” as it “has probably gone too far for the country to exist as anything more than a loose federation.”

As the U.S. supports (pushes?) Iraqi troops inside Sadr City, and with Muqtada threatening an all out counter-insurgency, this book makes one wonder about the unexpected, unintended outcomes of the American actions as they encounter Muqtada’s sense of survival combined with his willingness to stand up to the occupation. 

With thirty years experience in Iraq, Cockburn’s writing places him in the forefront of journalistic writing in the world today.  A mix of anecdotal stories, historical commentary, analytical thought examining different ideas and viewpoints, and eyewitness accounts, Muqtada stands out as a work to be taken seriously by anyone wondering about the reality of the situation within Iraq. 

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.