Fathoming the Iraqi quagmire

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Cockburn, PatrickMuqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq. by Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, Faber and Faber, London, 2008, ISBN 9780571239757

When US troops marched into Baghdad and toppled Saddam's regime in April 2003, the international media focused on pockets of cheering Iraqis who brought down statues of Saddam Hussein.

This was the image Washington was keen to promote. US policy makers believed that US forces would be welcomed in Iraq as a liberating force. The US decision to dismantle the Iraqi army and the state machinery under the guise of de-Ba'athification was based on what now appears to have been naïve optimism about the transition process.

What transpired after the fall of Saddam was a catastrophe. Iraq was plunged into civil war with a bloody tally of civilian casualties that grows by the day. The failure of the post-Saddam authority to provide physical security for Iraqi citizens, maintain employment opportunities and food supplies and organise garbage collection, to name a few essentials, has seriously discredited US policy makers.

The US invasion, however, heralded a new era for the Shia majority in Iraq. Constituting over 60 per cent of the population, they had lived under fear and persecution during Saddam's rule. The history of rivalry, and sometimes animosity, between Shia and Sunni Arabs was a critical factor in the course of post-Saddam politics.

This was not news to Patrick Cockburn, a foreign correspondent with the Independent newspaper who has reported on the Middle East for nearly three decades. Cockburn was keenly aware of the sectarian and ethnic loyalties in Iraq and was simply amazed at the level of ignorance among US policy makers.

In this book Cockburn chooses to introduce the reader to that historical background before dealing with Muqtada al-Sadr himself. As a result the reader is treated to an easy-to-read account of Iraq's politics under Saddam, especially the relationship between the Shia and the state.

This account is all the more relevant today because it helps explain the political attitudes of the Iraqi Shia population towards the United States, Shia Iran and the rest of the Arab world. It also contextualises the rapid rise of Muqtada al-Sadr to a position of authority in post-Saddam Iraq.

As Cockburn points out, Saddam's brutal policy of suppressing dissent 'destroyed the secular opposition parties and his own ruinous wars ... discredited secular Arab Nationalism'. So by default, religious figures who had managed to stay alive by not antagonising Saddam were in a position to exert popular authority.

Shia ulema, most notably Ayatollah al-Sistani who is regarded by the Shia in Iraq (and even in Iran) as the highest ranking scholar of Islam, were in an opportune position to benefit from the political vacuum following the fall of Saddam.

What is remarkable, however, is how the 30-something Muqtada al-Sadr, with no special standing in Islamic scholarship, managed to gain a position on a par with al-Sistani.

Muqtada's rise is based partly on his lineage, partly on his political position, and partly on the policies the US adopted in dealing with him. Muqtada comes from a highly respected clerical family. His father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad al-Sadr, and his uncle, Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, were both killed by Saddam's regime for their opposition to the regime.

This gave Muqtada a certain amount of credibility among the Shia, but he was not foolish enough to give himself up to Saddam's henchmen. Instead he played the role of the junior scholar with no political ambitions.

Muqtada chose his moment carefully. He entered politics when the threat of Saddam's retribution was removed, and made a name for himself by rejecting the US occupation of the country.

This put him at odds with the leading Shia scholars. Al-Sistani, for example, was careful in his statements and preferred to wait for the natural transition of power, confident that the Shia's demographic majority would deliver the state to them in due time.

Muqtada had no such patience. His fiery rhetoric against US occupation, and the establishment of an armed militia named after the 12th imam of Shia (the Mahdi army) gained him the titles of firebrand and rogue Shia cleric in the international media.

Cockburn, however, argues that Muqtada was also a fast learner. He realised that direct military confrontation with US forces could easily lead to his own demise. The battle of Najaf in 2004 when the Mahdi army was pounded by superior US war machine was a bitter lesson for Muqtada.

So when President George W. Bush announced the escalation of US commitment in January 2007, Muqtada was quick to order the Mahdi army out of their positions in Baghdad to avoid a military engagement. Instead he agreed to take part in the political process, participating in the Shia coalition that now dominates Iraq.

Muqtada's rapid rise would have not been possible without US help. Cockburn paints a convincing picture as to how Washington effectively elevated Muqtada's standing, first by treating him on a par with other, more senior, Shia leaders, and then by failing to arrest or pacify him.

'Had he been part of the political process from the beginning,' Cockburn argues, 'then the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater.'

This is an informative and accessible book. It is a must read for anyone who seeks to make sense of the Iraqi quagmire.

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq (Allen and Unwin)

Shahram AkbarzadehAssociate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh researches the politics of Central Asia and the Middle East, political Islam, and US relations with the Muslim world. He is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.


Topic tags: Cockburn, Patrick, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571239757



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Existing comments

Indeed this is great book which covers much ground and is very readable. There are libraries of books now on Iraq and some are booged down in detail without analysis. Cockburn has written a book for the person who is wanting a general study of modern Iraq. However the book has many gems for those who are already widely read on Iraq but still are looking for more. Highly recommended and thanks for the informative review.
Kerry Murphy | 25 July 2008


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