If you were able to create a list of books that you think US policy makers, military planners, and even combat soldiers who are in or will be deployed to Iraq should read, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq should be on that list. Not only does this book provide great insight into the current situation in Iraq, it provides important historical background on one of the most important groups of people that make up Iraq – the Shia.
Patrick Cockburn, an author of several books, has been reporting for the British newspaper the Independent from inside Iraq since the beginning of the US occupation. Cockburn begins the book by telling readers about his experience of going to Najaf in 2004 to meet Muqtada and how he was almost killed by the Shia leader’s followers who thought he was an American journalist. Cockburn’s willingness to take risks not only makes the book an interesting read, it also means he has gained access to areas of Iraq that few foreign journalists have.
Cockburn provides a nice background on who the Shia are historically early on so that readers can have some context in understanding their religious identity. The Shia draw their lineages to the great martyr Iman Hussein, who was killed in 680 AD and was grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The Shia will make an annual pilgrimage to the site of Hussein’s martyrdom, despite the dangers posed during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, The Gulf War and the current US occupation of Iraq. What is interesting to note is that when Imam Hussein and other Shia martyrs were killed, they were trapped in the city of Kerbala under circumstances that are very similar to what Muqtada has experienced since 2003. These are the types of parallels that the followers of Muqtada like to draw upon in their current struggle for independence.
Muqtada’s legend begins with the assassination of his uncle Mohammed Baqir al-Sada in 1980 by Saddam Hussein. Baqir became known as the first modern Shia martyr, known as Sadr I. His death was part of a campaign carried out by the Iraqi dictator, since the Shiawere increasingly seen as a threat to the Baath Party in Iraq. During Iraq’s war with Iran, Saddam Hussein again targeted the Shia community with imprisonment, murder, and even deported some 16,000 to Iran, since Hussein claimed they were of Iranian origin. The Shia clerics during this period of persecution advocated a non-political response, while some also fled the country and went into exile. The crack down on Shia religious leaders eventually led to the assassination of Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the cousin of Baqir and the father of Muqtada in 1999.
Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr came to prominence just after the 1991 Shia uprising that attempted to overthrow Saddam Hussein during the tail end of the US War in the Persian Gulf. The Shia rebellion held every major city south of Baghdad and had a good chance of overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, but at the last minute, US forces refused to provide support to the uprising. Much speculation has been put forth on why the US did not support the Shia rebellion. Cockburn says that George Bush Sr. was hoping that the Iraqi military would have taken out Saddam, since the US already had a working relationship with many military leaders in Iraq because of US assistance during the Iran-Iraq war. The author also states that US planners did not want to see the country become divided along sectarian lines. Cockburn quotes Zalmay Khalilzad, then director of planning for the State Department as saying, “The partitioning of Iraq will not serve our long-term interests. Iraqi disintegration will improve prospects for Iranian domination of the Gulf and remove a restraint on Syria.”
The cost to the Shia community for not fitting into the US plans for the country was the death and imprisonment of thousands of Shia. Saddam’s forces went on a killing rampage that left an estimated 150,00 Shia dead. The Shia has not forgotten what role the US played in preventing them from taking down Saddam Hussein. It is also important to note that the Sunnis collaborated with Saddam in preventing the rebellion, because, as Cockburn says, the Sunnis saw the rebellion as “being instigated from Iran and a betrayal to their country.”
The Shia rebellion of 1991 was not so clearly led by the religious leaders, but in order to prevent such an uprising in the future, Saddam Hussein appointed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr as the leader of the Shia. The Iraqi dictator thought that Mohammed would continue to counsel his followers to stay out of political affairs and pursue a purely religious life. However, because of the tremendous animosity from the 1991 repression, the continued harassment of the Shia from the Baath Party and the conditions caused by the US led economic sanctions, Mohammed became more political. The conditions caused by the sanctions are something that is not known in the United States. Cockburn says that people were so desperate to make money to buy food and medicine that they would risk losing limbs or dying when collecting un-exploded landmines so they could sell the aluminum that was wrapped around the explosives. This is an extremely important point that Cockburn makes in helping readers understand the level of resentment that the Shia have for the US.
Muqtada eventually succeeded his father in becoming the most prominent Shia religious leader after the 1999 assassination. Saddam Hussein had hoped to do away with Muqtada as well, but he was able to escape. Muqtada was not a well-known leader however until after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the capture of Saddam Hussein. During the reign of Paul Bremer, as the US viceroy to Iraq, Muqtada was seen as an increasing threat to US interests. Cockburn says that Bremer referred to Muqtada as “a rabble-rousing Shi’ite cleric” and even compared him to Hitler. Muqtada received such a designation from Bremer since he had the audacity to denounce the US Occupation as a form of colonialism. The animosity between the Shia and the US Occupation grew deeper during the US orchestrated siege on the city of Najaf in 2004. Najaf was a Shia stronghold and it is where Muqtada was able to recruit lots of Iraqi youth who were also against the US occupation.
The last few chapters of the book discuss the decision by Muqtada to enter into electoral politics in 2005. This was not a rejection of armed resistance, but a tactical move on his part to demonstrate the influence that the Shia had in parts of Iraq. Cockburn says that US diplomats and military planners continued to underestimate Muqtada. Shia leader Abbas Fadhel offers an astute analysis of how the Shia community viewed the US attitude towards the 2005 elections. Abbas says, “The Americans just wanted us to believe we were in power and at the same time end our confrontation with them.” Soon the fighting escalated and was intensified in places like Baghdad. The growing influence of the Shia movement is what led to the US “surge” of 2007. Cockburn says that while the Bush administration was claiming a victory with the “surge,” Shia resistance fighters were just blending in with the civilian population and waiting for the next round of attacks. At the same time more recruits show up daily since the conditions have become so severe, particularly food shortages, that one Iraqi in charge of the food rationing program in Baghdad said, “This never happened under Saddam Hussein’s regime.”
Muqtada is an extremely important book for those seeking to understand not only the Shia movement in Iraq, but why the US occupation has failed miserably. It is particularly important for those in the anti-war community since it can help us understand why so many Iraqis are pleading with us to end the occupation.
Alexander Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, (Scribner, 2008).