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.

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