Cockburn describes Muqtada as “the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the US invasion. He is the messianic leader of the religious and political movement of the impoverished Shia underclass whose lives were ruined by a quarter of a century of war, repression and sanctions”. He has been the one Shia leader to openly oppose the US-led occupation since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Far from being a “firebrand cleric”, al-Sadr has frequently proved astute and cautious. He generally sought compromise rather than confrontation, and learned from his mistakes. Since his battles with US forces in 2004 for control of Najaf, he has “always sought to avoid struggles he did not control and could not win.”
Cockburn considers that “one of the grossest of US errors in Iraq was to try to marginalise him and his movement. Had he been part of the political process from the beginning, the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater.”
But Cockburn also highlights the dark side of the Sadrist movement and the Mehdi Army. He examines the circumstances around the killing of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei in Najaf in April 2003 by supporters of Sadr. Abdel-Majid, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, had returned to Iraq from London where he had been living in exile.
Cockburn writes: “If Muqtada did not know that al-Khoei was being done to death it may well have been because he did not choose to know”. An Iraqi judge Raad Juhi, issued a warrant for Muqtada’s arrest, saying two eyewitnesses had said they heard him order the killing, and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer hovered for months on the edge of ordering Sadr’s arrest.
In the years that followed, it would be a “convenient excuse for the Sadrists... that they were not responsible for much of the violence carried out in their name”. Muqtada was always “a man riding a tiger, sometimes presiding, sometimes controlling the mass movement he nominally led. His words and actions were often far apart.”
Cockburn himself experienced the volatility and violence of the Mehdi Army in April 2004 when he and his Iraqi driver and translator were temporarily taken hostage by members of the militia at a roadblock near Kufa. One of the militiamen screamed that Cockburn was an American spy, and Cockburn is convinced that if he was not Irish, but had been carrying an American or British passport, he and his two Iraqi companions would have been killed.
Cockburn has covered Iraq for more than 30 years, and has since 2003 reported from Iraq for the London-based Independent newspaper. He is one of the few Western journalists to report from places far beyond the relative safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2005 and the James Cameron Memorial Award in 2006.
Since the 2003 invasion, a considerable number of books on Iraq have appeared in English. But Cockburn says: “Many of them, when you actually read them, are really about the Americans in Iraq, and the Iraqis they knew or the Iraqis they dealt with. They are not really about Iraqis.” The footnotes of such books typically cite American authorities and American documents.
“This does not make them bad books, but it means they give a very particular, peculiar view of Iraq which is very different from the Iraq I have experienced or the sort of things that Iraqis really think about.”
In his book Cockburn wanted to write “not just about Muqtada al-Sadr, but about the Shia of Iraq, and the people who now came to power in Iraq, and their extraordinary history over the past 30 to 40 years – and indeed their history of the past 1400 years in Iraq.” He thinks that few people outside Iraq know much about the history of the Iraqi Shia.
Cockburn also wanted to quote directly from Iraqi eyewitnesses of the events depicted in his book. But it was difficult for him to carry out interviews himself, as many of the eyewitnesses lived in districts of Baghdad or provincial cities that he dared not visit. He was helped by intermediaries to whom he gave the questions he wished to ask. They would bring him back the answers from those interviewed. The numerous quotations from eyewitnesses add greatly to the vividness and insights of his narrative.
Muqtada was only 29 at the time of the 2003 invasion. But far from being the inexperienced young man whom his critics portrayed, he was “a highly experienced political operator who had worked in his father’s office in Najaf since he was a teenager.” His grasp of what ordinary Iraqis felt “was to prove far more sure than that of the politicians isolated in the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad.”
Muqtada stresses that he is heir to legacy of his father in law, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (“Sadr I”), and of Muqtada’s father Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (“Sadr II”), both of whom were killed by Saddam’s regime. Muhammad Baqir and his sister Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda, were tortured and hung in 1980.
Muhammad Baqir had been among the young clerics who created the Da’wa Party in 1957. Many of the founder members of the Da’wa were executed, assassinated or tortured to death, but “half a century later the Iraqi government was dominated by the relatives and descendants of the men who had established the Da’wa Party”. Cockburn examines the rivalry among the great Iraqi Shia religious families. The al-Sadr rivalry with the Hakim family continues, as shown by the often violent power struggle between Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (the SIIC - formerly known as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI).
After the Shia intifada of 1991, Saddam cultivated Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Between 1992 and 1996 Muhammad Sadiq appeared to cooperate with the regime, but he started a mass popular movement which blended Islamic revivalism with populism and Iraqi nationalism. In 1997 the regime allowed Sadrites to publish the magazine al-Huda edited by Muqtada, Muhammad Sadiq’s youngest son.
Saddam eventually realised his plan “to install his own candidate as religious leader of the Shia had spectacularly backfired.” On 19 February 1999 security agents ambushed and killed Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and his two elder sons Mustafa and Muammal at a roundabout in Najaf. Up to that time, Muhammad Sadiq was still being denounced as a collaborator with the regime by many of his Shia opponents.
The sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf war had led to a mass impoverishment of Iraqis, which hit the poorer Shia particularly hard. Cockburn says the failure or inability of the government to do anything about this was the essential precondition for the rapid rise of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr in the early 1990s, and Muqtada after 2003.
In the four years between the killing of his father and two brothers and the 2003 invasion, Muqtada kept a very low profile and was under constant surveillance by the security services. This may have marked his personality and made him wary and suspicious of those around him.
Muqtada’s opponents have “criticised him for his lowly place in the Shia religious hierarchy, implying that he lacked intelligence or academic ability.” Cockburn thinks Muqtada wished not to be the head of a huge, ill-disciplined militia, but to be a religious and political leader. In 2005 he replaced military with political action, and he took part in the elections of that year.
Muqtada has been keen to improve his religious credentials, and is currently studying in the Iranian city of Qom. In an interview with Al-Jazeera in late March this year, he said he had dedicated five years to society, and now wants to dedicate a few years to his studies so as to be of more benefit to society, and to progress in his knowledge and faith.
Cockburn examines the twists and turns in Muqtada’s relations with Iran. He writes: “It was bizarre that President Bush was to claim repeatedly over the next four years that Muqtada and the Mehdi Army were Iranian pawns when SCIRI and Badr, but now allied to the US, were demonstrably Iranian creations.”
The Sadrist movement was historically anti-Iranian. Cockburn said Muqtada could have gone on playing the anti-Iranian card, but “it was a measure of his growing skill as a politician that he did not.” In June 2003 returning from the hajj to Mecca he visited Iraq and met the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and reportedly the commander of the Qods Brigade, Qasim Suleimani.
Four years later President George W Bush would denounce the Mehdi army as an arm of the Iranian Qods Brigade in Iraq. Cockburn thinks much of this was paranoia. “Allegations of significant Iranian involvement in Iraq were seldom backed up by evidence, but Iran did provide a useful safe haven and potential source of supplies and money for the nascent Mehdi Army.”
Of course, the Iranians wanted to have influence within every Iraqi Shia organisation, religious or political. In 2005 Iranian intelligence did start to increase its influence within the Sadrist movement and Mehdi army. Muqtada strongly opposed this, but was unable to do so effectively.
In the waves of sectarian killings in 2005-07, “How far did the Mehdi army foster the Shia death squads?” asks Cockburn. “Muqtada decried sectarian killings and declared that the priority was to end the US occupation of Iraq, but did he covertly allow his movement to take the lead in sectarian cleansing as all Sunni were convinced he did?” Many of the militiamen who formally acknowledged his leadership had no intention of accepting his orders. Muqtada complained that “death squads that say they kill on behalf of the Mehdi Army are trying to destroy us and divide us and prevent us from raising arms against the forces of occupation.”
Muqtada saw that the surge in US troops announced in January 2007 was partly aimed at him, and announced that his militiamen would not resist US forces. He even supported negotiations aimed at easing US deployment in Sadrist strongholds. In August 2007 he declared a ceasefire after fighting between his followers and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). Sadr froze all actions of the Mehdi army for six months, and closed all Sadrist offices. His continuing ceasefire is seen as a major reason for the marked reduction in violence in Iraq during the surge.
The situation for Muqtada and his followers has changed dramatically this year as a result of the fighting and ceasefires in Basra and in Sadr City. The onslaught against Sadr’s militia by government troops backed by US forces was seen as an attempt to boost the SIIC and weaken the Sadrist movement ahead of the provincial elections, which had been due to be held in October. However, the provincial elections may not be held this year, given the dispute over the draft provincial elections law as it relates to Kirkuk.
Media reports from Iraq state that the Sadrists’ power has been greatly reduced. But some commentators think the Sadr Trend still has many supporters, and that the Mehdi Army has the ability to take back much of the area it previously controlled.
In a statement issued at the end of July, Muqtada offered to give the government his popular and political support if it did not sign the security agreement with the US. Much of his statement seemed designed to curb sectarian warfare, and it set limits to resistance operations against the occupation, saying civilians and government services should not be targeted and that such operations should take place outside cities.
It is difficult to forecast what lies ahead for Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement during the next crucial phases of Iraq’s political development. Cockburn’s book is of course controversial, and not all will agree with his assessment of Muqtada, but it is a valuable study of the Shia of Iraq and of a man who, to much of the West at least, has been shrouded in mystery.