COVERAGE IN the English-language media of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iraqi movement he represents has been scanty, often inaccurate, and nearly always governed by unreasoning hostility. Patrick Cockburn’s Muqtada provides a valuable corrective. However, Cockburn does not simply refute a set of myths, but also gives an absorbing narrative of the rise of a potent religious and political force, grounded by interviews with Iraqis inside and outside the Sadrist movement and framed by an analysis of Iraqi politics.
Previous writing on the history and present of the Sadrist movement has included an excellent 2003 book on political Shiism in Iraq by Faleh Jabar (The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq), and an information-packed 2006 report on Sadr by the International Crisis Group, but there has been nothing as comprehensive, readable, or up-to-date as Cockburn’s book.
Cockburn writes that understanding Sadrism requires knowledge not just of Muqtada himself but of the history of Shia political Islam in Iraq. Correspondingly, he devotes half of Muqtada to this history. This decision bears fruit. The account of political Shiism in Iraq, from the rise of the Dawa party through the martyrdoms of Muqtada al-Sadr’s famous grand-uncle and father, makes it impossible to dismiss Muqtada as a mere apolitical “gangster,” grievance-fabricating “demagogue,” or reactionary “firebrand cleric.”
Rather, the Sadrist movement, with roots going back to the 1970s or before and a structure dating from the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, represents “a mixture of Islamic revivalism, nationalism, and populism [with] a deep appeal to angry, alienated, but terrorized young Shia men.” Among the Shia political parties, most of the others led by exiles who returned to Iraq with the U.S. invasion in 2003, “only [the Sadrists] represented the millions of laborers and unemployed.”
Cockburn discusses briefly the loose Sadrist organizational structure, which has given the movement great flexibility but often proved a deadly flaw, making Muqtada “a man riding a tiger.” Held together by Muqtada’s charismatic authority and a cadre of young clerics without a clear hierarchy, the Sadrists operate numerous local offices that provide religious and social services using mostly local resources. Where they have government positions, principally in the health ministry, these are used to secure loyalty by providing jobs and services to supporters. The Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, is composed of unpaid volunteer fighters, whose units have often formed independently of any Sadrist cadre and function on the initiative of local leaders.
Cockburn does not romanticize the Sadrists. He acknowledges that, though a populist in economics, Sadr is a conservative in social mores. The Sadrist militia, where able, frequently enforces the closure of shops selling alcohol, music, and videos, and the veiling of women in public—though in this category, one of Cockburn’s female interviewees tells him, the U.S.-friendly Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI or SIIC, formerly SCIRI) is worse. Cockburn also points out that despite the Sadrists’ cooperation with Sunnis in battling with the U.S. in 2004, and despite Muqtada’s verbally anti-sectarian nationalism and frequent calls for restraint, the Mahdi Army carried out the largest part of the 2006 ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad.
In fact, if anything, Cockburn goes too far in his depiction of the depth of the sectarian tendency within the Sadrist movement, dating its origin too early.
A principled war opponent who could not be dismissed as a Bush administration stenographer, Cockburn played an important role in 2005 and 2006, through his reporting for the British newspaper The Independent, in convincing many antiwar activists that talk of a developing civil war was not simply an excuse for continued occupation. He argued effectively that direct involvement of the U.S. in the vast majority of violent incidents in Iraq did not obviate the reality of sectarianism, and that the numerous social ties between Shia and Sunni could be broken. In Muqtada, Cockburn presents a nuanced picture of this development:
Bush… speak[s] as if Sunni-Shia warfare started with the bombing of the Samarra shrine in 2006. In reality, suicide bombings clearly targeting Shia had begun at least as early as March 2004.… [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-] Sistani counseled against retaliation.… When organized Shia retaliation did occur, it came after the first Shia government was formed in May 2005, and was carried out by the Shia-dominated police and police commandos.… The relentless suicide bombings and assassinations carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq progressively infuriated the Shia community as a whole.… By February 2006 all that was needed was a particularly spectacular bombing…to trigger massive and bloody retaliation [led by Sadrists among others].
However, in the process of fighting the good fight against civil war denial, Cockburn may have ended up reading the present too far back into the past. He claims that sectarian hostility was “almost unbridgeable” as long ago as 1991, after the bloody failure of a Shia uprising against Saddam in the wake of the Gulf War. But even in Cockburn’s description, the Shia uprising targeted not just any Sunni, but Baathist officials, who themselves included many Shias. The only interviewee Cockburn quotes in support of his view that the “Sunni community,” not simply Saddam’s Baath Party, felt “terror” because of the 1991 uprising, is a former Baathist military officer.
In any case, Cockburn is obviously correct that a civil war is now well underway in Iraq, and surely also correct in looking to the rise of a unified nationalist resistance to U.S. occupation as the main hope for an alternative to sectarian civil war.
Cockburn writes that, by contrast to ISCI and its ilk, Muqtada was “the one Shia leader capable of uniting with the Sunni” on a nationalist, anti-occupation platform. There were signs that this might happen in 2004, during the battles of Fallujah and Najaf. However, Sunni insurgents did not effectively reciprocate by turning decisively against al-Qaeda.
Then, as Cockburn tells it, over the course of the next two years, the Mahdi Army grew massively, exacerbating its organizational problems as sectarian bombings continued. By spring 2006, the mood of the impoverished and alienated young men—for whom the Sadrist movement had now become the primary political representation—was in favor of revenge. However much it hurt Muqtada’s political strategy, he could do little to change this. He could declare, “death squads that say they kill on behalf of the Mahdi Army are trying to destroy us and divide us and prevent us from raising arms against the forces of occupation,” and denounce sectarian killers as “criminals…using my name as cover for their actions,” but whether because of his own tacit sectarianism, for fear of isolating himself from his base, or due to simple organizational inability, he did not take more concrete action.
This is the tragedy of Iraqi politics. While—as Cockburn, despite his pessimism, appears to acknowledge—the outbreak of a civil war was not structurally inevitable, even after the U.S. invasion and Saddam’s fall, as things turned out there was no political force able and willing to bring its development to a halt.
This lack has still not been filled. It’s true, Cockburn reports, that Muqtada has recently shown signs of gaining a better control over the Mahdi Army, successfully holding it to a ceasefire in 2007 and another in early 2008. The Sadrists have also turned their fire on the occupiers, rather than Sunnis, in the last few months. However, any gesture of reconciliation Sadr might now make will, in Cockburn’s view, be too little, too late. In fact, he concludes, “the disintegration of Iraq has probably gone too far for the country to exist as anything more than a loose federation.”
Is he right? Predicting future political developments can, of course, never be certain, and we have already seen Iraqi society change very quickly—but it’s difficult to find fault with Cockburn’s bleak analysis. Full U.S. withdrawal would remove one of the driving forces of the civil war, a source of violence and of arms and money for all sides, but withdrawal would at best undo only a little of the damage that has been done to Iraq.