Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review Muqtada, Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, And The Struggle For Iraq

Cockburn, Patrick, Muqtada, Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, And The Struggle For Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Scribner, 2008

Muqtada, Muqtada Al-Sadr, The Shia Revival, And The Struggle For Iraq by journalist Patrick Cockburn is one of those rare Western books about post-Saddam Iraq that focuses upon Iraqis instead of the Americans. The author tries to place Moqtada al-Sadr’s rise as a leading Iraqi political figure after 2003 in the context of the growth of identity and religious politics within the Shiite community. The first half of the book is all history about the formation of the first Shiite religious party, the repression under Baathist rule, the 1991 uprising after the Gulf War, and the two great ayatollahs of the Sadr family Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr who was the father in law of Moqtada and then his father Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Cockburn’s argument is that Moqtada al-Sadr was a product of the repression and activism during the Baathist era, and that he was consistently underestimated by the Americans post-03.


Half of Muqtada is a history of the Shiite community in Iraq. Like many books it begins with the split between Sunnis and Shiites but then goes into much more depth. Cockburn covers the rituals such as the different pilgrimages, the conversion of the southern Iraqi tribes to Shiism in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and then the history of the Sadr family. The growth of Arab nationalism and Communism in 1950s Iraq posed a direct threat to the Shiite religious establishment as it was losing followers to those two ideologies. The Arif government was also seen as sectarian for targeting Shiite businesses with its nationalization program and being pro-Sunni with its appointments. The response was to form a religious party known as Dawa with Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr its spiritual leader. When Baqir al-Sadr backed the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and Shiite parties attempted to assassinated Baathist officials, it marked the end of the cleric as he was arrested and executed in 1980. His cousin Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr then came to prominence in the 1990s. There is much debate about his relationship with the Saddam government with supporters saying he manipulated the system to build his movement while his critics call him a puppet of the regime. Cockburn believes in the former. Sadiq al-Sadr appealed to the young Shiite poor pushing a rebirth of religiosity and Iraqi nationalism during the sanctions period when the country was being impoverished. He became more confrontational with the government and in 1999 was assassinated by Saddam leading to mass protests and an attempted revolt that were brutally put down. Cockburn doesn’t provide as much analysis as he could but he does do a good job with his history. The 1950s saw the emergence of Shiite identity politics in the face of secular ideologies and a sectarian government. That only increased when the Baath came to power and singled out the community for repression leading to more radicalization. Baqir al-Sadr and Sadiq al-Sadr emerged out of this milieu and provided the followers and ideology that would give birth to Moqtada al-Sadr. The fact that Sadr was a surprise to the Americans after the invasion was because it was completely ignorant of all of this background.


Cockburn rejects the common phrase used in Western media to describe Sadr which was “the firebrand cleric.” The author points out that Moqtada was able to survive in Iraq after his father was assassinated only by being very careful. Many of the negative stories about him such as him not being a good religious student or not being interested in politics came from this period to protect the young Sadr from the authorities who would have arrested, imprisoned, and likely killed him if he tried to be as active as his dad. Cockburn points out that Moqtada played an important role in his Sadiq al-Sadr’s movement being the editor of the movement’s newspaper, the head of security, and most importantly being in charge of Al-Thawra in eastern Baghdad which became Sadr City after the U.S. invasion. It’s Cockburn’s impression that all the negative media that swarmed around Sadr was due to the U.S. government being opposed to him fearing an anti-American cleric could come to power which would be a major reversal for how Washington viewed Iraqi democracy developing. The Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer for instance was incensed by Sadr’s emergence and had nothing but bad things to say about him which was widely repeated in the Western media.


The book then goes through the emergence of the Sadrists after 2003 covering both its successes and failures. For instance, right after the invasion Sadr restarted his father’s Friday prayers and called for the pilgrimage to Karbala which had been banned by Saddam. He also got his network of clerics and sheikhs working immediately to organize his followers to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the regime. At the same time his followers killed Sayid Majid al-Khoei in Najaf the head of the Khoei Foundation in England who was flown into Iraq by the United States. Sadr would lead two uprisings the next year in 2004 leading to the two Battles of Najaf. The first he came away looking good having stood up to the United States occupation, but not so much after the second one. Sadr learned from his mistakes however and moved into politics gaining several ministries after the December 2005 elections. He used them to give jobs and services to his followers while solidifying his patronage networks. At the same time his ministers were accused of corruption and his Mahdi Army exploited the Health Ministry to execute Sunnis in hospitals. He aligned with Iran to gain financial and military support to confront the U.S. but that also opened up his movement to manipulation by Tehran which paid militiamen to carry out assassinations and attacks upon the Americans for it. His militia then essentially won the battle for Baghdad murdering and expelling Sunnis from the capital from 2006-07. Cockburn highlights that Sadr made just as many right as wrong moves in post-Saddam Iraq. The author believes that Sadr went through phases first organizing and securing his base, then attempting a military confrontation with the U.S. occupation, and when that failed moved towards politics. At the same time his militia went from fighting the Americans to killing Sunnis. There are plenty of interviews with Sadrists, militiamen and some of his Iraqi critics to tell this story. The only really problem with this part of the book is that Cockburn acknowledges that Sadr had ties with Iran, but then constantly tries to downplay it sometimes attributing it to western propaganda against Sadr. He tried to have it both ways but was unconvincing.


Muqtada is a very good introduction to the Sadr movement. The fact that Cockburn provided so much historical background beyond the conventional Sunni-Shiite split gave a welcomed context to the emergence of Shiite identity and religious politics in Iraq. Sadr’s family played a prominent role throughout that period and gave Moqtada the base that would make him one of the prominent leaders in post-03 Iraq. The author provided plenty of Iraqi voices to explain the Sadr movement as well and rejected how the Americans came to view it. There is really no other book that covers this material and it is still relevant today as Sadr remains one of the main voices in Iraqi politics.


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