Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq

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Patrick Cockburn, Faber and Faber, £16.99

"The most dangerous man in Iraq" is how Newsweek described Muqtada al-Sadr in December 2006. The young Shia cleric has certainly been cast in many contradictory roles. Is he a leader of Iraqi Arab resistance to the US occupation, or a tool of Iran? A commander of sectarian death squads or a force for Iraqi unity? Patrick Cockburn peels away the layers of exaggeration and hypocrisy in the Western media's portrayal of Sadr, revealing a clever and cautious political leader, who has been one of the most dogged opponents of the US occupation.

Not so much the biography of a man, but the story of a movement, Cockburn's account draws on his long experience of reporting from Iraq, interweaving personal recollections and interviews from 1977 to the present day. As he rightly emphasises, the Sadr movement's appeal cannot be explained simply in religious terms.

The movement has its roots in the rise of the Iraqi Shia Islamist movement since the 1970s. For Cockburn, declining support for the secular opposition forces - such as the Communists - was largely a reaction by Shia Iraqis to the increasingly sectarian behaviour of the state. Other accounts of the same period provide a different perspective, for example emphasising the impact of Communist collaboration with the Baathist regime in the 1970s, or arguing that this era was marked by the brutal repression of Shia Islamist groups, but not by a general campaign of sectarian persecution.

The Sadr movement was, as Cockburn makes clear, also a reaction against the historic parties of the Shia Islamist movement. Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada's father, set about building a movement in the 1990s which was self-consciously Arab, in contrast to the pro-Iranian policies of the other major parties. Another key feature of the Sadr movement is its appeal to the Shia working class and urban poor. The loathing middle class leaders of the Dawa party feel for Muqtada is not only a reflection of their estimation of him as a political rival, but also their fear that his movement represents in organised form millions of Iraq's poor and dispossessed.

US officials, by contrast, underestimated Muqtada and the Sadrists, igniting in March and April 2004 a simultaneous uprising by the Mehdi Army - the Sadrist militia - and the Sunni resistance groups around Fallujah. Cockburn documents US alarm as a sign that armed resistance to the occupation was beginning to coalesce on a national scale: fighters from Fallujah reinforcing Muqtada's Mehdi Army in Najaf, Shia donors queuing to give blood for the wounded of Fallujah.

Cockburn is pessimistic that such cooperation could ever have evolved into a genuinely national resistance movement. His account also - understandably, given its focus - has little space to discuss the theological and political divisions among Iraqi Sunni Islamist parties, and their interaction with the Sadrists. Nevertheless, this book remains a fascinating introduction to Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement.