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by Mohammed A. Salih

Misunderstanding Muqtada al-Sadr

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- "He is an American spy," the militiamen shouted at Patrick Cockburn four years ago in Kufa, south of Baghdad. He could have hardly imagined that he would live to write a book on the very people who kidnapped him.

Luckily for Cockburn, the angry men decided to take him to their local sheikh, who after making a few phone calls, allowed the British journalist, his driver and translator to go.

That incident is related in the opening paragraphs of Cockburn's "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival, and the struggle for Iraq," but was not the sole reason that motivated him to pen a book on Iraq's Shias.

"There have been many books on Iraq and there are a number of successful books on Iraq, but the ones written are about Americans in Iraq. They are not about Iraqis," he told IPS in Washington during a recent visit to the U.S. capital.

A reporter for the London-based Independent newspaper, Cockburn's book is an analytical and highly informative account of Shia history in Iraq, mainly from the second half of the twentieth century up to now. Providing profound insights into the historical roots of Muqtada's Sadrist movement and the current Shia revival in Iraq, Cockburn's book is a must-read for a wide range of readers from journalists to academics, politicians and policy-makers who deal with Iraq and the region.

Muqtada's sudden emergence in the very first days after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, as a powerful leader of poor segments of the historically-underdog Shia population in Iraq, sparked equal feelings of shock and awe among U.S. and British officials and their Iraqi allies. It epitomized their first major miscalculation of the likely political landscape in post-war Iraq.

Muqtada and his "simple, religious and very dangerous" popular base had different ideas in mind about Iraq's future political system than that of the war planners in Washington and London.

Muqtada al-Sadr's family has had a relatively long political history that goes back mainly to the 1950s, when Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, Muqtada's father-in-law, founded the Dawa (Call) Party at a period in Iraq's history when secular nationalists and Marxists were the dominant forces on the ground. By establishing Dawa, Sadr I introduced a fresh perspective in terms of the attitude of clerics on political life: that of active participation and integration of religion into politics and vice versa.

Not surprisingly, Hussein had no intention of tolerating Dawa and Sadr I, a characteristic feature of 35 years of Ba'ath rule in Iraq during which no dissidence was allowed. Al-Sadr and his politically active sister Bint al-Huda were brutally killed after severe torture in 1980.

During his rule, Hussein used force and fortune to silence Iraqi Shias. However, as soon as they saw his regime weakened following 1991 Kuwait War and the humiliating defeat of the Iraqi army at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition, the Shia rose up.

The post-1991 phase was the perfect time for Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada's father, to step into the arena. He was wrongly picked up as the religious leader of Iraq's Shia by Hussein, under the illusion that he was a collaborator and Iraqi nationalist who would keep Iraqi Shias away from neighboring Iran, where a Shia Islamist government was in power.

Despite the ever-watchful eyes of Iraqi secret police, Sadr II managed to inspire and bring a brutalized Shia community together and revitalise the religious networks in different parts of the country. During that time, Muqtada was a close lieutenant of his father and the editor of al-Hawza magazine, where religious guidance was given to the faithful.

The Iraqi government had strongly suspected Sadr II was going his own way and got rid of him by riddling his car with bullets in the holy city of Najaf in February 1999 where he and two of his sons Mustafa and Muammal were killed.

Muqtada knew very well the nature of Hussein's regime and decided to play it smart and keep a very low profile -- so low that perhaps few people anticipated his later emergence as a significant player in Iraq's politics.

However, he did not manage an admirable debut when just one day after the fall of the regime on Apr. 10, people loyal to him lynched Abdul-Majid al-Khoei, an ally of the U.S. and the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei, a one-time supreme cleric of Iraq's Shia. Thereafter, the story of Muqtada's relationship with other major actors on the stage, from the U.S. and British troops to the Iraqi government and rival Shia parties, became one of highly tense relations, unstable ceasefires and smart tactical moves on the Sadrists' part.

"Muqtada succeeded in asserting his authority over swathes of Shia Iraq in a few days because of his own abilities and the legacy of his father," Cockburn writes in his book. "But he was also riding a wave of Shia self-assertion that was as overpowering as it was unexpected."

Cockburn believes that the major U.S.-British-Iraqi mistake in dealing with Muqtada was "Trying to marginalize him and thinking you could marginalise him. And of course that was marginalising millions of Iraqis. And so the popular base of the Iraqi government will be small."

Ever since his emergence, the western media dismissed Muqtada as a "firebrand cleric." But Cockburn sharply disagrees with that description.

"I think that Muqtada is completely misunderstood in the western media and to some extent within Iraq. First of all, he is a very astute politician, otherwise he wouldn't have survived. He doesn't like to take on the opponent that he thinks might win," Cockburn told IPS.

While through rhetoric and a few symbolic actions, Muqtada tried to present himself as an Iraqi Islamist-nationalist, his Mahdi Army became known for their sectarian policies and bloody purging of some Baghdad neighborhoods of their Sunni residents through a campaign of terror and brutality.

Despite all the strengths of the book in the form of well-researched historical details, smooth and interesting narratives in some chapters, and deep analysis of Iraq's Shia politics, Cockburn did not manage to talk with Muqtada himself.

"First, it was very difficult to do that, and, second, I didn't want to tell the Sadrists what I was doing," Cockburn explained. "You can't even talk to a commander of Mahdi Army if they know exactly that you are writing a book on them."

But getting in touch with Muqtada would not have been as dangerous since he is now based in Qom, Iran, completing his religious studies.

Cockburn also falls short of providing a detailed account of Muqtada's reclusive years after the death of his father until the 2003 war. Readers are not given any insight into Muqtada's personal life until after 2003 and the evolution of his ideas and personality during that particular period.

In the absence of any other powerful and well-organized resistance to the U.S presence in Iraq, Muqtada remains the iconic anti-occupation champion of Shias.

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Albion Monitor   July 14, 2008   (

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