The Shia Avenger
A biography of the young cleric who complicates American plans for Iraq.

Reviewed by Vali Nasr
Sunday, June 8, 2008


Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn

Scribner. 226 pp. $24

The last word that Saddam Hussein heard as the executioner's noose was being tightened around his neck was "Muqtada." As in Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shia cleric who had survived his persecutor to lay claim to Iraq. Americans may be tempted to dismiss Muqtada as mainly a nuisance -- too young, inexperienced and unstable to thrive in Iraqi politics. But it was Muqtada's men who executed Saddam, and the movement associated with him has grown enough to threaten U.S. plans for Iraq, most recently by plunging the southern metropolis of Basra into battle and by roiling Baghdad's Sadr City, the massive Shia district that bears his family name.

As veteran British journalist Patrick Cockburn's authoritative biography should make clear, it is unwise to assume a future for Iraq that does not include Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement. Americans need to learn more about him, and Cockburn's empathetic, insightful study is a good place to start. Having covered Iraq for more than three decades for London's Independent and the Financial Times, Cockburn is well placed to introduce readers to this forbidding, enigmatic man and his blood-soaked past.

Muqtada was born in 1973 into the Shia clerical aristocracy as the son, son-in-law and great-grandnephew of famous religious scholars. Saddam murdered his venerated father and father-in-law -- along with two of his older brothers -- making them martyrs in Shia eyes. As their heir, Muqtada seeks to rally the poor with a mixture of Shia populism, Iraqi nationalism and anti-Americanism. He is now finishing the Shia march to power his kinsmen started, taking on U.S. forces and intimidating his Sunni countrymen in the process.

Muqtada's tale is full of violence and rage, and Cockburn spares few bloodcurdling details in recounting the wounds that Iraq's Shia majority has suffered over the course of its long struggle for a voice in the country's politics. As a child Muqtada watched his father, severely tortured for his impassioned sermons, turn into a recluse who prayed night and day. But his agony pales before Cockburn's poignant description of the massacres and mass graves that became the fate of the Shia after their ill-fated uprising in 1991, following America's victory in the first Gulf War. Cockburn puts paid to the claim, so often heard in the Arab world, that the U.S. invasion gave rise to violent sectarianism in Iraq. Plenty of pain was inflicted on Shias before March 2003.

Cockburn also dispatches the facile notion, popular in America, that a shared vision of democracy and prosperity could have readily displaced the sectarian divides and violent past that haunt Iraq. Muqtada and his movement for Shia supremacy emerge from these sobering pages as a natural product of the Iraqi Shias' tortured history and their inevitable rise in Iraq since the removal of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-minority dictatorship.

Muqtada's populism -- voicing the frustrations of the Shia poor and promising them a path to power -- is only part of the reason for his steady rise. Anti-Americanism also plays a role. When the U.S. occupation began, the Shia grand ayatollahs in Najaf -- the venerated "cardinals" of the faith -- looked down on the young, relatively uneducated Muqtada, derisively calling him "the kid." They encouraged their flock to vote in U.S.-backed elections and were content to let U.S. troops fight the mostly Sunni insurgency.

But Muqtada never took the grand ayatollahs' line. He rejected the occupation, and after a massive bomb destroyed the Shia shrine at Samarra in February 2006, his Mahdi Army went looking for revenge on Sunnis. Many Americans interpret Muqtada's avoidance of open sectarian talk and his rejection of dividing up Iraq as signs that he is willing to accommodate Sunnis. But this is a fallacy; he wants a united Iraq in which Sunnis submit to the will of the Shia majority.

Still, the Sadrist phenomenon is not a case of unbending ideology riding straight to power. Muqtada has survived so far, Cockburn argues convincingly, because he knows when to retreat and how to shift alliances. After losing to U.S. troops in Najaf in 2004, he sought protection from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whom he had earlier tried to dislodge from the city. Recently, he ordered his followers to stand down when fighting in Basra and Sadr City threatened a direct confrontation with U.S. forces, and he again looked to Sistani to deflect pressure to disband his militia. Today, Muqtada hunkers down in Iran and relies on military and financial support from Tehran, something he once ridiculed his rivals for doing to escape Saddam.

Of course, more chapters in Muqtada's life story remain to be written. He confronts challenges from factions within his own movement, including renegade militiamen, messianic pretenders and some of his father's students. He also faces the prospect that the new Iraqi government, though Shia-dominated, will try to assert its unrivaled hold on the country by bringing military pressure against him. And he cannot ignore the continuing criticism of Shia clerics such as Sistani, who has shown displeasure with Mahdi Army tactics, or the possibility that the Iranians may push him aside in favor of other Shia actors (or render him a mere figurehead) as they seek to honeycomb southern Iraq with their own "special groups" operating under the Mahdi Army's name.

Cockburn is good at showing complexity: The Sadr movement is not poised to become a state within a state like the Lebanese Hezbollah anytime soon, nor will it simply melt away. In all likelihood, it will change as the endgame of the American occupation nears and the competition for power quickens. This means we, too, will have a hand in what becomes of Muqtada and his movement. ยท

Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future."

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