Book Review: Muqtada by Patrick Cockburn

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One of the secret weapons of the occupation forces in Iraq has been the sheer danger of reporting on the conflict. The occupiers themselves have attacked the local offices of Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster with the least inclination to “embed” itself in the protective grasp of the US army: their claim that this was an unfortunate accident appeared less plausible when we learned that George Bush had previously suggested bombing Al-Jazeera’s main headquarters in Doha at a meeting with Tony Blair. But the greatest threat to reporting has come from the catastrophic breakdown of civil order since 2003: the same dangers that plague Iraqi citizens on a daily basis will greet any foreign journalist brave enough to venture beyond the Green Zone.

The result has been a gross distortion of reality. US politicians and soldiers have been able to make shamelessly dishonest claims about the situation in Iraq, sure in the knowledge that most journalists won’t want to risk assassination or kidnapping in order to disprove their propaganda. The “Iraq Body Count” survey, originally set up with good intentions to document the casualties of war, has become a tool for those who want to whitewash the occupation. The survey relies on the western media to supply evidence of civilian deaths, and is certain to be a wild under-estimate of the real death toll for that very reason: nonetheless, its inaccurate statistics are used to discredit studies based on more robust scientific criteria that suggest a figure for violent deaths of close to a million since 2003.

Thank God, then, for Patrick Cockburn, a journalist with a remarkable knowledge of Iraqi society and an equally remarkable courage in facing life-threatening situations. His earlier book The Occupation was a devastating picture of Iraq’s hellish state under US rule. Now he has written a highly informative and readable book about Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the most formidable opponents of US strategy in Iraq since the earliest days of the occupation.

The origins of Sadrism

Cockburn begins the story long before 2003 (Muqtada himself doesn’t arrive in the narrative until chapter 9), tracing the early roots of the Sadrist movement. Muqtada’s cousin and father-in-law Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr was a prominent Shia cleric in the 1960s and 1970s who argued that it was essential for the clergy to enter the political stage. At that time the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) had more support in the Shia community than any of the proto-fundamentalist groups: it’s a bitter irony that Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr modelled the structures of his own political party on the militantly secularist ICP.

The Ba’athist dictatorship was unwilling to tolerate any challenge to its rule and looked with increasing displeasure on Baqir’s work. Baqir himself was implacably opposed to the regime headed by Saddam Hussein: he is said to have remarked that “if my little finger was Ba’athist, I would cut it off”. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, Saddam decided it was time to eliminate the threat posed by the first al-Sadr: he was arrested and savagely tortured before his execution in 1980.

The second phase of the Sadrist movement began after the 1991 war between Saddam and the US-led coalition. Cockburn fills in a history that most western observers will be unfamiliar with: while sanctions and weapons inspections dominated media coverage of Iraq, a major social upheaval was largely overlooked. It began with the Shia revolt against Ba’athist rule in the aftermath of Saddam’s defeat. The uprising was a sudden eruption of murderous hatred against a regime that crushed all opposition, marked by countless lynchings of Ba’athists and their collaborators (according to Cockburn, the insurrectionaries detested the regime so much that they even smashed up traffic lights – anything associated with the Ba’athist state was fair game). Once Saddam had re-established control, his revenge was merciless: 150,000 people are thought to have been killed in random massacres of the Shia population in southern Iraq.

It was in the wake of this slaughter that Muqtada’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, began organising a Shia religious movement that became the most popular force in Iraq. The destruction of the Iraqi economy by UN sanctions created a generation of young men who grew up without any hope of employment, watching the collapse of their nation around them. They were the social base of the Sadrist movement in the 1990s. Mohammed Sadiq (widely known as “Sadr II”) played a clever game with the Ba’athists, pretending to be a willing collaborator who was only interested in religious and cultural reform within the Shia community. It was only after Sadr II had built a mass movement that could attract crowds of several hundred thousand people to its rallies that Saddam Hussein realised the nature of the threat he was facing from the Sadrists.

The response was predictable: as Mohammed Sadiq began using his platform to criticise the regime more and more openly, the Ba’athists prepared to eliminate him. In 1999, Sadr II sent a message to the Iraqi opposition, warning that he would soon be killed and pleading for assistance. A few days later, Mohammed Sadiq and two of his sons were gunned down in traffic by a government hit squad. Saddam pretended to have nothing to do with the assassination, sending a hypocritical message of condolence to the family as his official media suggested that Zionist agents must have been responsible for the killings.

This is the point at which Muqtada al-Sadr enters Cockburn’s narrative. Cockburn suggests that it was only the hypocrisy of the regime that saved Muqtada’s life – although government agents watched him carefully until the demise of Ba’athist rule, he did not share the fate of his two elder brothers. Muqtada sent a formal letter to Saddam thanking him for the expressions of sympathy, and did his best to convince the regime’s agents that he was a dull-witted, harmless individual with no political ambitions whatsoever. This pretence kept him alive until the situation was transformed by the 2003 invasion.

Muqtada and the Occupation

For those who had not been following the Shia revival of the 1990s, it seemed as if the movement founded by Muqtada al-Sadr soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein had sprung out of nowhere. In fact, it was built on the foundations laid by his father and father-in-law – the network of Shia clergy established by Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr in the 1990s could be re-activated by his son, who bore the name of two celebrated martyrs. The Sadrists began to construct an armed militia which they called the Mehdi Army, and established a firm base among the poorer sections of the Shia population.

Cockburn notes that the US pro-consul Paul Bremer developed a hostile obsession with Muqtada, presenting him as a latter-day Hitler whose presence would have to be removed from the Iraqi scene by any means necessary. Given the almost total ignorance of Iraqi society shown by the occupiers in every aspect of their behaviour, it was no surprise that Bremer stumbled his way into a violent confrontation with the Mehdi Army in 2004 – at the same time as the US army was trying to snuff out a Sunni uprising in Falluja.

The US-UK governments and their apologists have often claimed that their presence in Iraq is needed to prevent sectarian conflict. In fact there is nothing they fear more than unity between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, if that unity is directed against the occupation. As his troops faced armed resistance in Falluja and Najaf, Bremer was forced to back off and began the classic imperial game of divide-and-rule which has continued ever since.

Of course, it was much easier for the occupiers to play that game because factors beyond their control supplied them with such promising raw material. Saddam had long encouraged sectarian division to bind the Sunni community to his regime, and the massacres of Shia civilians which followed the 1991 revolt were not likely to be forgotten. Cross-sectarian unity against the occupiers would have been extremely difficult to forge, given this background. It was made virtually impossible by the murderous current which emerged within the Sunni anti-occupation forces, whose most notorious leader was the Jordanian fanatic Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Driven by a racist contempt for Shia Muslims, the most extreme jihadis began carrying out suicide bomb attacks on civilian targets. They had no real interest in fighting the occupation: their main goal was to provoke a civil war between Shia and Sunni Iraqis. Conspiracy theories which began to circulate in Iraq, claiming that al-Zarqawi was a CIA agent or a phantom invented by the occupiers, were certainly false. But they reflect the unquestionable fact that his followers gave a vital boost to the occupation. Outside Iraq, they made it easier to legitimise the occupiers’ presence as a “counter-terrorist” necessity. Inside the country, they sabotaged the prospect of a Shia-Sunni alliance against foreign troops.

Cockburn argues that Muqtada al-Sadr wanted to form an alliance with Sunni nationalist leaders who challenged the occupation, but demanded that they also condemn the attacks on Shia civilians. Their refusal to do so ensured the alliance was never formed. Shia death squads began retaliating against Sunnis, especially in Baghdad. The destruction of the Shia mosque at Samarra by Sunni bombers in 2006 provoked an all-out sectarian war that saw mixed districts “ethnically cleansed” of Sunni or Shia inhabitants by militias.

The role of Muqtada himself in this sectarian conflict is a controversial issue, and Cockburn handles it with care. He insists that members of the Mehdi Army have been systematically responsible for the murder of Sunni civilians: their involvement is too widespread to be attributed to “rogue elements”. Cockburn argues, however, that it is unlikely that Muqtada ever had full control over his militia. In many cases, young men formed armed units that declared their allegiance to the Mehdi Army, while acting on their own initiative. The leaders of the Mehdi Army have tried to establish a centralised control structure, often using ruthless methods to impose discipline (Cockburn quotes one eyewitness who describes the existence of a Sadrist torture room where militiamen whose use of violence was considered excessive were delivered for punishment).

It seems plausible to suggest that Muqtada al-Sadr did not want his movement to get involved in the sectarian war. After all, the role of the Mehdi Army in sectarian murders has undermined Muqtada’s attempt to position himself as an Iraqi nationalist capable of winning Sunni backing for his anti-occupation stance. This is not a naïve attempt to paint the Sadrists as idealistic non-sectarians: the nature of their Shia fundamentalist ideology would make it very difficult for them to appeal to Sunni or Christian Iraqis, and Muqtada is certainly no democrat. But it is hard to see what he would have thought to gain from encouraging sectarian conflict. Whether he did enough to oppose it is another matter.

While its anti-occupation stance may overlap with the position of the anti-imperialist Left, there is little else that socialists can find in common with the Sadrist movement. Although their base of support is to be found in the poorest Shia neighbourhoods, the Sadrists are not social revolutionaries or reformers. Their economic programme does not go beyond populist demands for state charity to mitigate the worst effects of poverty. Judging by their record in areas under Sadrist control, Muqtada and his followers are more interested in the cultural aspects of religious fundamentalism, insisting that women wear the veil and discouraging the consumption of alcohol (although Cockburn suggests that their coercive practices in this field are probably unnecessary, since there has been a strong revival of militant Shia belief with or without external pressure).

Iraq after the surge

In this book – and in his other writings from Iraq – Cockburn dismisses the claim that the relative decline in violence over the last year can be attributed to the “surge” of US troops. He argues that it was inevitable that violence would began to taper off sooner or later, because the ethnic cleansing of mixed neighbourhoods has now been largely completed. There were two other factors, in Cockburn’s view, behind the relative stabilisation. One was a split in the Sunni anti-occupation forces, which led to the formation of the “Awakening” movement: they find the heirs of al-Zarqawi so repulsive that they are willing to co-operate with the US forces in order to crush Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi franchise. This has reduced the number of attacks on foreign troops in Sunni areas, as the US army is now ceding control to men who previously fought against it.

The second factor was the ceasefire called by Muqtada. According to Cockburn, this was partly a response to the “surge” – ever since the two bloody confrontations at Najaf in 2004, Muqtada has done his best to avoid direct military engagement with the US army, believing it to be suicidal. But it was also an attempt to re-establish his authority after the bloody carnage of 2006-7, which severely damaged the reputation of the Sadrist movement. The attempt appears to have been a qualified success, although there have been many reports that Sadrist militiamen are straining at the leash, eager to retaliate against Nuri al-Maliki’s government as it tries to eliminate the Sadrists as a political force. The main component in al-Maliki’s coalition is the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly known as SCIRI), which has been locked in battle with the Sadrists for Shia hegemony.

In other words, the violent Shia-Sunni conflict of 2006-7 has been partly displaced by intra-communal struggles, while the occupation forces have not faced as many attacks as in the recent past. It doesn’t appear likely that the current equilibrium will hold indefinitely, although it would be foolhardy to predict exactly what will happen next. Will the pressure of al-Maliki’s government provoke a violent response from the Sadrists? Will the Sunni militias resume their conflict with the US army once they have settled accounts with Al-Qaeda – or go to war with the Shia-led government? Will there be another eruption of sectarian violence? What role will the Kurds play?

Cockburn concludes by arguing that after the events of the past five years, “the disintegration of Iraq has probably gone too far for the country to exist as anything more than a loose federation”. If this is the case, the same disintegration may ensure that the US government never has to face a single moment of humiliation comparable to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The number of combat troops in Iraq will surely be reduced, but Washington will certainly not abandon its efforts to dominate the future of Iraq. After its first colonial war, the invasion of Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century, the US army withdrew but left behind a constitution that made Cuban independence largely symbolic until the revolution of 1959. No administration, Democrat or Republican, is likely to abandon control over the world’s second-largest oil reserves without a struggle.

The bloody fiasco in Iraq has not produced much cause for celebration. One of its few positive side-effects has been the blow sustained by US imperial arrogance: the hubris of 2001-03 has dissolved very quickly, and the US foreign-policy establishment is now producing guidebooks to help its leaders navigate a “post-American world” where it won’t be enough to bang their fist on the table and demand compliance. The famous “Vietnam syndrome” may soon be replaced by an “Iraq syndrome” which stands in the way of future wars. Those expecting a radical change in direction under Barack Obama will be disappointed, but his administration will surely think long and hard before imitating the reckless military adventurism of the Bush-Cheney crew.

It would be good if we could find some grounds for optimism about the future of Iraq itself. The nearest thing to a happy ending its people are likely to receive is the least-bad outcome: uneasy and occasionally fraught co-existence between Sunni, Shia and Kurd in the “loose federation” predicted by Cockburn, with the US government forced to concede real sovereignty despite its best efforts. It wouldn’t be much to cheer, but it would certainly be better than a return to all-out civil war, which remains possible. Whatever happens as the end game approaches, the legacies of Ba’athist oppression and Bushite occupation will haunt Iraq and its neighbours for many years to come.

Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq By Patrick Cockburn

Antiwar Radio has a lengthy radio interview with Cockburn which was broadcast on the 13th of November 2008. In the Interview Cockburn discusses the Iraqi National Intelligence Service threat to sue Ahmed Chalabi, the myth that the “surge” pacified Iraq, the continued scarcity of clean water and electricity in Baghdad, a likely new UN resolution by the new year and how a Shia-dominated government may be strong enough to take over from the U.S.

Click on the Play button below to listen to the interview.

Interview with Patrick Cockburn


One Response

  1. Eoin

    May 20, 2009 11:08 pm

    Very good reporting as always by Cockburn but was let down by Al-Sadr himself who fell off the radar just as this book was published leaving the books relevance up in the air. Cockburn comes as close as anyone in the english speaking world to getting a handle on the mercurial Moqtada. Does anyone know this guys intentions? Is he someone the left should “root” for? He’s certainly been consistently anti-imperialist and his spokesmen make all the right noises regarding concilliation with the Sunni and against Shia sectarianism but do the JAM work to a different agenda? Many more questions such as has the Sadrist movement been neutralised by Maliki, will Moqtada supposed studying in Qom mean a battle of the Ayatollahs should he return, can the Sadrists work with the Sunnis to keep Iraq together as opposed to the designs of the Kurds and some of the Shia? Since at least 2004 I’ve had a feeling that Al-Sadr would be one of the (maybe the) defining characters in the contemporary history of Iraq and Cockburns book may need updating with several more chapters.