Muqtada, the Future of Iraq

Robert S. Eshelman

Members of the Mehdi Army stand guard next to a poster of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, at a checkpoint in the holy city of Najaf, Iraq.

Firebrand.” It was the ubiquitous moniker used to describe Iraq’s fiercely anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr when, in March 2004, his leering portrait became commonplace among American media reports of Iraq. 

'Had Muqtada been part of the political process from the beginning,' Cockburn writes, 'the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater'

American Viceroy L. Paul Bremer III had just shut down al-Sadr’s Baghdad newspaper, al-Hawza, and hinted at arresting him, ushering in the first of several confrontations with al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army. 

More recently, this label has given way to that of Iranian-backed” – conjuring comparisons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s besieged Hamas party. 

In both cases, these depictions serve to portray al-Sadr as an irrational, extremist proxy, who, to a great degree, has contributed to Iraq’s instability and continues to be a major obstacle to peace in Iraq, if not across the Middle East. 

But as Patrick Cockburn, the Iraq correspondent for The Independent of London, argues convincingly in Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq (Scribner, May 2008), such representations overlook the causes of al-Sadr’s rise to political prominence. More importantly, they grossly misrepresent his unique blend of Shiite religious doctrine and Iraqi nationalism, as well as overlook the fact that he leads the only truly mass political movement in Iraq. 

Part of the mystery concerning Muqtada has its origin in simple ignorance,” writes Cockburn. Muqtada’s emergence as a central figure in Iraq, he continues, is surprising only if one is unfamiliar with the bloody and dramatic story of resistance to Saddam Hussein by Iraqi Shia as a whole and the al-Sadr family in particular.”

Over the first several chapters of Muqtada, Cockburn traces this largely untold, and, indeed, bloody chronicle. 

At the heart of Muqtada’s backstory are his father-in-law – Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr – and his father – Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Both attained the honorific of Grand Ayatollah and were killed by Saddam’s regime. Baqir was executed in 1980 and Sadiq was assassinated in 1999, along with two of Muqtada’s brothers. 

These two figures – who remain highly revered by Iraqi Shiite today – bequethed Muqtada a bounty of religious and political legitimacy upon becoming the leader of the Sadrist movement. 

Bound up with the Sadr family biography is an intricate history of modern Iraq: intra-Shiite rivalries; the brutal Iran-Iraq war in the 80s; the collapse of secular, Iraqi nationalism under Saddam; and the failed Shiite uprising of 1991

Cockburn, who has been reporting from Iraq since 1977, nimbly weaves together these developments, which are essential to understanding contemporary Iraqi politics, without ever straying far from his central object of inquiry – Muqtada’s ascension to political significance.

American dailies churn out stories of a centralized, albeit struggling, political system – where power emanates from the American Embassy, the military and, nominally, from Iraqi governmental institutions. But Cockburn’s articles convey a more complicated, troubling view of the dysfunctional occupation, and expose the deep wounds of Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting. (His previous book on Iraq, The Occupation, was short-listed for a National Book Critics Circle award in 2007.)

Following the U.S. invasion, Muqtada’s keen political and military sensibilities allowed him to step into a central position on the political landscape. During the spring and summer of 2004, he and his Mehdi Army faced down American forces in Najaf and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, taking heavy losses. Since then, his army has developed from rag-tag groups of irregulars into a more coherent and capable, although not yet highly organized, fighting force. 

During that time, Muqtada skillfully played his hand vis-à-vis the United States and the interim Iraqi government. He sometimes took forceful stands while at other times made tactical retreats. At the dawn of Iraq’s 2005 elections, he entered the electoral realm, when large political gains where almost certain.

Muqtada does not appear as a principal character in Cockburn’s book until the ninth chapter, roughly halfway through, and is rarely quoted directly, not to mention interviewed at length. This may seem odd at first but is, in fact, what makes this book so strikingly relevant. 

Like his backstory of the Iraqi Shiite and the Sadr family, Cockburn shows that Muqtada’s rise has as much, perhaps more, to do with the setting – American military and political blunders, sectarian conflict, and intra-Shiite politics – than it does with any of Muqtada’s particular attributes, however crucial those might be. 

In a similar vein, Cockburn steers clear of exoticizing Iraq’s Shiites, though he does not hesitate to acknowledge the role that faith plays in mobilizing them into action. He recalls how, after the fall of Saddam, millions of Shiites embarked on a mass pilgrimage to Kerbala for the first time in decades. A few months later, these millions again heeded the call of their religious hierarchy and took to the streets of Baghdad, demanding free elections. 

Cockburn also takes up Sadr’s difficult-to-pin-down links to sectarian violence and his supposed ties to Iran, both of which are often overblown but in need of inquiry. 

Muqtada al-Sadr is the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the U.S. invasion,” writes Cockburn. He is the Messianic leader of the religious and political movement of the impoverished Shia underclass whose lives were ruined by a quarter century of war, repression and sanctions.” 

Having toppled Saddam from power in spring 2003, the United States was taken completely by surprise by Muqtada’s power and influence. 

Had [Muqtada] been part of the political process from the beginning,” Cockburn writes, the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater.”

Cockburn reveals by twists and turns Muqtada’s emergence on the political scene and his deftness in building his political movement. 

Based on decades of reportage and peppered with interviews with Mehdi fighters, Sadrist insiders and others close to, or knowledgeable of, Muqtada and the Sadrist movement, Cockburn delivers an important book on the post-invasion period. 

With provincial elections in Iraq slated to occur later this year and Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki’s government clamping down on Sadrist forces in Baghdad and in the Shiite south, Cockburn’s Muqtada serves as a necessary guidebook for interpreting the turbulent course that Iraqi politics has taken over the past several years – and where it is likely to go next. 

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Robert Eshelman’s articles have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, In These Times and The Nation.
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