Keeping Their Distance

Charles Tripp

  • Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq by Patrick Cockburn
    Faber, 289 pp, £16.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 23974 0

This is a strange time in Iraq. Local actors and regional powers are watching each other and the Americans, waiting to see what the US election will bring. For their part, the Americans are hoping against hope that the present lull in violence is the sign of an emerging order rather than one of the many illusory ‘tipping points’ that they have imagined during the last five years. Meanwhile, Nouri al-Maliki’s government is trying to persuade itself and the country at large that its forces’ recent assaults on Basra, Mosul and Sadr City in Baghdad have established its authority, restoring the awe of the state that was so spectacularly lost in 2003.

In reality, the situation is fragile. Relative peace in the west and north of Iraq has been bought by the Americans at the price of arming and financing local tribal militias who have no love for the central government. If the US presses ahead with the ‘status of forces agreement’ and the ‘strategic alliance’ announced last November, it will place severe limits on Iraq’s sovereignty for years to come. Local council elections in a few months’ time promise to heighten tensions across Iraq, but particularly in the south. It is here that the government coalition is desperate to eliminate the greatest threat to its control – the Jaish al-Mahdi, headed by Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, scion of a prominent Iraqi Shia clerical family. He and his movement were the main targets of the recent government campaign to ‘reconquer’ parts of Basra and Baghdad. This venture met with mixed results and the militiamen faded away into the background as they have done so often before, obeying Muqtada’s call for a ceasefire and unnerving those who have come to realise that the relative calm they are enjoying may hang on the word of someone they fear and despise – and have often underestimated.

These events came too late for inclusion in Patrick Cockburn’s book, but they follow the pattern he skilfully sets out in this complex account of the emergence of Muqtada al-Sadr, whom he sees as ‘the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the US invasion’. Unusually among writers on the war Cockburn describes the milieu from which al-Sadr comes and its history, as well as the world which has created his thousands of followers: a world so remote from the experiences not only of the foreign forces which have occupied Iraq, but also of many of the Iraqis whom they promoted, that it isn’t surprising that Muqtada and his movement have been dismissed as a rabble of fanatics and firebrands. But these descriptions may tell us more about their critics.

Two factors, often wilfully ignored by policy makers and commentators alike, help to account for the conditions that allowed a populist, even messianic movement such as the Jaish al-Mahdi to emerge in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. The first is the effect of 13 years of punitive sanctions on Iraqi memories and society. The second is the role of class in shaping the country’s political alliances and divisions.

In 2004 Cockburn himself experienced the casual brutality of the Sadrist militia and their mistrust and hatred of the Americans in particular. Stopped at a roadblock on the way to Najaf, he was saved only by his Irish passport. An American or a British passport would have been a death warrant. Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq in the 1990s, had warned about these damaged and violent young men, likening them to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the wake of Saddam Hussein’s suppression of the 1991 southern uprising – an uprising that many in Iraq blamed the US for failing to support – a movement grew up among the Shia, led by Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, ‘whose open hostility to the US and covert opposition to Saddam Hussein spoke straight to the heart of millions of Iraqi Shia. They hated the regime in Baghdad but also detested an American government that they blamed for the sanctions that were destroying their lives and those of their children.’

The punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq chiefly hurt the most vulnerable members of the population. Perversely, Saddam Hussein thrived, since sanctions redoubled the dependence of all Iraqis on his favour, and broke the back of the salaried middle classes. The humanitarian disaster that was unfolding in many parts of Iraq, particularly among the poorest and least visible, was uneasily recorded by some UN agencies, but seemed to make no impact on the permanent members of the Security Council, particularly the US and the UK, which remained adamant that to lift sanctions would be to ‘reward Saddam Hussein’.

Yet when these same powers invaded and occupied Iraq, there seems to have been little attempt to understand what the sanctions regime had done to a whole generation of Iraqis. Whether through moral cowardice or because of ideological predilections, Iraq’s problems – poverty, collapsed infrastructure, violence and brutalisation – were attributed to ‘Baathism’, or to Saddam Hussein alone. However, Cockburn’s account shows that the destitution, resentment and brutality have more to do with the effects of sanctions. In this situation the Sadrist movement provided some kind of hope for the urban poor in districts of Baghdad such as the renamed Sadr City, as well as in the crowded and inadequate slums of Basra, Nasiriyah and Amarah.

As Cockburn points out, Muqtada didn’t spring out of nowhere, nor was he the slow-witted character he pretended to be after his father’s death in order to deflect Saddam Hussein’s vengeful gaze. On the contrary, he was an important player in the mass welfare and pietist organisation his father had created: this is what gave him his enormous following among those who felt that only the Sadrist organisation understood their situation and could do something to help them.

This didn’t go down at all well with the clerical elites, the intellectuals and the Islamist exiles. They saw themselves as the true representatives of the Shia, mistrusted the populist nature of the Sadrist movement and wondered what motive Saddam Hussein had in allowing it to operate in the 1990s. Assiduously cultivating the support of Iran and other foreign governments, they had completely cut themselves off from poor Iraqi Shias during these years, and it’s said that they were somewhat shamefaced when Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq and two of his sons were gunned down by agents of the regime in Najaf in 1999. But neither they nor their Iranian hosts were sufficiently moved to do anything to help during the brutal repression of the ‘al-Sadr intifada’. This has been neither forgotten nor forgiven by Muqtada and his followers.

The leaders of the main Shia parties that form the core of the present government – men such as al-Maliki, the former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim – spent the past twenty years or so in moderately comfortable exile in Iran, Syria, the Gulf states or Europe, a fact that leads to their being regarded with suspicion and resentment by those who stayed in Iraq. These feelings are reinforced by the chasm of class and status that separates the vast bulk of Muqtada’s supporters from many of the former exiles.

For the past five years, the world has become used to thinking that Iraqi politics revolves entirely around sectarian, ethnic and tribal ambitions, fears and prejudices. The prominence of those who stake their claim to recognition precisely on these identities and the virulence of sectarian and ethnic violence have blocked everything else from view. That the US has rewarded people who present themselves in this way, from the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 to the tribal Awakening Councils of 2007-8, has compounded the problem. Yet there are other forces at work which are too often played down.

Among these are the forces of class disdain in one direction and class resentment in the other. These don’t necessarily take the form of class-based parties with radical agendas aimed at addressing class inequalities, but they do feed into the communal politics of Iraq in important ways. Those who claim to represent the ‘Shia’, the ‘Sunni’, the ‘Kurds’ or the ‘tribes’ come from historically privileged circles of educated and relatively affluent citizens whose status has made them the focus of state patronage, but also of state retribution if ‘their’ community misbehaves. Even before the Iraqi state came into existence they owed their lands, their business networks and their positions to their tribal and clerical rank, but this status could be maintained only if they also kept a clear distance, social, sometimes geographical, but certainly financial, between themselves and the thousands dependent on their patronage.

Historically, these leaders have been keen both to assert their common identity with those they dominated and to ensure that politics continued to run along lines of patronage within the community, rather than along the more threatening – to them – lines of class solidarity, which might have undermined their right to own and dispose of tribal lands or communal wealth. For that reason, revolutionary movements in Iraqi politics have most often originated among sections of the population in the grip of powerful families that trade on communal solidarity to maintain their privileged position. From at least the 1940s the radical impulse in Kurdish politics, directed against the tribal chiefs, landowners and sheikhs of the Sufi orders, derived from this kind of resentment. Similarly, disillusioned and radical Shia intellectuals and the Shia poor formed the backbone both of the Iraqi Communist Party and of the early Baath Arab Socialist Party.

In the present free-for-all that is the Iraqi economy, with unknown sums being siphoned off from the state budget and huge subventions coming from US, Iranian and other sources, those who have inserted themselves into the government on the basis that they are communal leaders have a great deal to lose if the ground rules of the politics of appropriation and distribution change. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that these same political leaders have been happy to follow the US lead in retaining Saddam Hussein’s repressive laws on the right to strike, when so much other Baathist legislation has been scrapped. Nor, like the Americans, have they looked kindly on attempts to organise independent trade unions, often harassing and detaining their members and seeking to play on ethnic or sectarian factors to disrupt or co-opt workers’ organisations.

It is equally noticeable that this government – like its predecessors since 2004 – has done little to improve public services in the most deprived urban areas. This is in marked contrast to the energy and ingenuity with which some of its members have misappropriated state funds, or ensured that their own neighbourhoods benefit. Like their Victorian counterparts in this country, they have no problem in equating poverty with criminality and it is natural for someone like al-Maliki to use the language of class contempt, labelling the targets of his campaign against militia rule in Baghdad and Basra as ‘criminal gangs’, ‘outlaws’, even ‘rabble’. Artillery and air strikes have been deployed against the neighbourhoods which are the strongholds of the Sadrist movement, while the other ‘gangs’ – militias of parties that are within the magic circle – have been left untouched. The comment made by an associate of al-Maliki – ‘How many doctors and engineers are there in the Sadrist movement?’ – sums up the divide.

Muqtada al-Sadr has done much to harness the resentments of those who feel themselves despised and patronised. The pattern is in many ways a familiar one, visible in the politics of the dispossessed across the region, from Lebanon to Gaza. Muqtada, like the al-Hakims, the Bahr al-Ulums and others, comes from a distinguished and status-conscious Shia family and has played on the reverence in which his father is held by the thousands whom his organisation helped. He is by no means a social revolutionary in the classic sense of the term, in that he advocates neither the redistribution of wealth nor the overturning of a system which gives him enormous powers of patronage. On the contrary, he operates very much within a corporatist idiom, in which it is assumed that some, such as himself, have the ability and the right to speak and act on behalf of the whole and that each has a designated part to play in sustaining the community.

As Cockburn shows, Muqtada has nevertheless succeeded in mobilising a population that felt neglected, excluded and despised, but also under threat in post-2003 Iraq. Building up the Jaish al-Mahdi has been a key part of his formidable political strategy and, in the conditions of an emerging sectarian civil war, it has been the only guarantee of security for many Shia neighbourhoods. But it has also taken on a life of its own and become the main enforcer, revenue collector and, as the situation has deteriorated, a fearful instrument of sectarian violence. At times, Muqtada has tried to reach agreement with elements of the Sunni-based resistance in Iraq, sharing with them a common hatred of the Americans and a mistrust of the returning exiles who dominate national politics. However, there are many who still see him and his followers through a sectarian lens and this in turn has exacerbated intra-communal violence. Under these circumstances, the membership of the Jaish al-Mahdi grew but discipline deteriorated, and as it extended its activities throughout much of southern Iraq, it looked like just one among many militias, inspiring fear as much as reassurance. Despite an impressive and growing list of enemies, it could not easily be suppressed, even if its activities could be curbed.

Like any politician, Muqtada makes mistakes. Nor is he immune to the troubling consequences of political success. Cockburn describes the way he has tried – often ruthlessly – to extend his power, but he rarely underestimates the strength of his opponents and, when they appear too formidable to face head on, he retreats and bides his time. Far from being the ‘firebrand’ that the foreign media describe, he seems patient and sometimes cautious, although, as the present campaign against him shows, others may try to provoke a confrontation in the hope of eliminating him as a serious player in Iraqi politics.

Cockburn tells this story well, bringing out the poignant as well as the horrific aspects of the Iraq in which the Jaish al-Mahdi and other militias have thrived. The account of his own experiences, the risks he has run and the first-hand impressions he has formed, is supported by a truly impressive list of interviews with a wide range of Iraqis. But it is also based on an informed and sensitive understanding of the condition of Iraq and of the world which has allowed a figure such as Muqtada al-Sadr to emerge as a significant figure.

Given the hazards of Iraqi politics, Muqtada, like so many members of his family, not to mention those whom his militia has ruthlessly dispatched, may in his turn disappear. However, there is little doubt that his movement represents a powerful force in Iraqi politics: a populist, radical Islamic nationalism which, although scarcely revolutionary in its economic or social programme, nevertheless speaks for many of those who have felt themselves despised and ignored, not merely by other communities, but by their own communal leaders. Regardless of the outcome of the present stand-off between the Jaish al-Mahdi and the other militias, the voice of the dispossessed, strident and uncomfortable as it may be, can now be heard at the heart of Iraqi politics.