Who Is Iraq's "Firebrand Cleric"?

From Baghdad, veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explains why Muqtada al-Sadr is no maverick.

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

"Interview in Baghdad," "Interview in Najaf," "Interview in Basra," "Interview in Amara": The endnotes at the back of Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn's new book read like an atlas of Iraq. Such is the depth of reporting in Cockburn's Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, a political biography-cum-war chronicle due out April 8.

As the U.K. Independent's correspondent, Cockburn has spent about half of the last five years reporting, unembedded, around Iraq, a country he's been visiting since 1977. His subject is the real Iraq, and Iraqi voices predominate in his work. British and American officials rarely appear in the book. (He assiduously avoids the U.S. military's Green Zone press briefings.) When Cockburn does give airtime to the official line, he's usually debunking it. It was this irreverent attitude that got him barred from entering Iraq in the late 1990s when the regime was displeased with Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein, a collection of Iraq reportage focusing on the aftermath of the Gulf War, which Cockburn wrote with his brother. In Muqtada Cockburn both explores the rise of al-Sadr, undoubtedly one of the most important men in Iraq today, and traces the disintegration of Iraq through five years of American occupation.

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After several failed attempts, I reached Cockburn by phone at the Al-Hamra Hotel in Baghdad March 17, just before the start of the recent fighting in Basra. In between broken connections and over the loud whir of a military helicopter above the hotel, I asked him what al-Sadr's role will be in the future Iraq and if, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion, he sees any reason for hope.

Mother Jones: In the beginning of your book, you write that Muqtada al-Sadr leads "the only mass movement in Iraqi politics." Can you elaborate on that, especially given that in the American media we still hear more about the official Iraqi government than some of these other factions?

Patrick Cockburn: It's always sort of amazing, sitting here in Baghdad, to watch visiting dignitaries—today we had Dick Cheney and John McCain—being received in the Green Zone by politicians who have usually very little support and seldom go outside the Green Zone. Muqtada leads the only real mass movement in Iraq. It's a mass movement of the Shia, who are 60 percent of the population, and of poor Shia—and most Shia are poor. Otherwise the place is full of sort of self-declared leaders, many of whom spend most of their time outside Iraq. You know, if you want to meet a lot of Iraqi leaders, the best places are the hotels in Amman or in London. In general the government here is amazingly unpopular.

MJ: What are the roots of his credibility among the people?

PC: Muqtada belongs to the most famous religious family in Iraq, which is the al-Sadr family. He's really the third in line. [Muqtada's father] drew his power from the first really important al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir, who was executed by Saddam in 1980, together with his sister. So it's really a family of martyrs, and that's why Muqtada suddenly emerged from nowhere with the fall of Saddam. If you had passed around a picture of him in Washington at the time of the overthrow of Saddam, I doubt if any of them would have heard of Muqtada.

MJ: Did anyone outside or inside the country predict Muqtada's rise?

PC: No, absolutely not. His father was dead along with two of his brothers, assassinated by Saddam in 1999. His father-in-law had been executed. He was under sort of house arrest in Najaf and was just within inches of getting executed himself. So everybody—those who knew the family history—thought that the whole organization had been destroyed. What Muqtada had going for him was that he had been a senior lieutenant of his father, so he had street experience of politics from the 1990s. Also he had a sort of core of people who revered him who were politically experienced, and he brought this together very fast just in the days after the fall of Saddam.

His father was a very interesting character because he's almost the only person who persuaded Saddam to trust him. Saddam thought it would be a really smart political move after the great Shia uprising of 1991 if he could have his own Shia religious leader who'd be in his pocket. So he chose this guy, Muqtada's father, who came from the right family. Muqtada's father used this to promote a mass movement. And then at the last movement Saddam discovered he had been fostering this extremely dangerous enemy, who was refusing to use Saddam's name when he called for prayers, so Saddam had him murdered in Najaf.

MJ: Is the Western media epithet for Muqtada as the "firebrand cleric" accurate?

PC: The idea that he's a maverick is 100 percent contrary to his track record over the last five years. In fact he's very cautious, never pushing things too far, trying not to be pushed into a corner. [L. Paul] Jerry Bremer tried to arrest Muqtada and ignited a tremendous uprising over most of southern Iraq in 2004. You could see all these Americans in the Green Zone had completely failed to realize the kind of support he could get. They announced they were going to arrest him and suddenly the whole of southern Iraq erupted and Bremer [couldn't] control it anymore—but Muqtada did. Then there was a big siege of Najaf. But Muqtada always sort of looked for a way out. So the idea of him as a maverick cleric, a firebrand, is one of these absurd journalistic clichés that takes on a life of its own, despite the fact that its contradicted by everything that happens.

MJ: Another thing you see is journalists frequently describing him as a "radical cleric." Is there anything radical about al-Sadr?

PC: Well, it's slightly more accurate. He's radical in the sense that he wants the U.S. occupation to end and has always said so from the beginning. Secondly, his support among the Shia really runs along class lines; it's mainly the poor who support him. His organization runs an enormous social network. Despite the fact that there's billions of dollars sitting in the Iraqi government reserves, somehow they are incapable of getting it out to the people. There are a very large number of people here who are on the edge of starvation. For those sort of people—a sizable chunk of people—that service makes them regard Muqtada as a sort of god.

Another thing is that he's always been able to call on a core of young men. Young Shia who have been brought up with nothing, who are pretty anarchic, pretty dangerous. My book begins with a run-in I had with them in 2004 when they came close to killing me, and of course they have killed very large numbers of other Iraqis. That's a major source of strength for Muqtada.

MJ: You write that from the U.S. perspective, Muqtada looks too much like a younger version of Ayatollah Khomeini. Is there anything to that?

PC: There's an element of truth to it. But from the moment George Bush decided to overthrow Saddam, the people who were going to benefit here were the Shia, who are 60 percent of the population. So if you were ever going to have an election, then the Shia would take over. An awful lot of the American problems in Iraq over the last five years come from the U.S. thinking that in some way it can devise a formula here that Saddam would be gone and the Shia religious parties—guys who look a bit like Khomeini, not just Muqtada, but all the other clergy—wouldn't take over. The U.S. never found it. I don't think it's there.

MJ: So if the Democrats win the election in the United States, and they make good on their promise to pull out or mostly pull out from Iraq, what role would al-Sadr play in that scenario?

PC: A very critical role. Here is sort of the biggest Shia leader with the most popular support. If there were elections tomorrow he would probably sweep Shia Baghdad and most of the south. He's not going to take over the whole of Iraq because Iraq is such a divided place these days. The Kurds are never going to let the Arabs take over their chunk, and the Sunni are going to fight like tigers to keep the Shia from taking over their areas.

MJ: What would an Iraq under al-Sadr look like?

PC: I don't think the whole of Iraq would be under al-Sadr, but I think he would be the predominant force on the Shia side. Quite contrary to his sort of maverick, firebrand image, he's shown a propensity to deal with the other side, to look for compromises, to negotiate. You might have a loose federation [in Iraq]. There are some things that could hold it together, notably oil revenues. But at the moment, the much vaunted surge has had a measure of success primarily, to my mind, because Sunni and Shia Iraqis hate and fear each other more these days than they hate and fear the Americans.

MJ: You write in the book that the U.S. as well as Iraqi politicians habitually fail to recognize the extent to which hostility to the occupation drives Iraqi politics. How much of al-Sadr's popularity do you ascribe to him speaking against the occupation?

PC: I was doing a lot of interviews today with ordinary Iraqis, and they all bring it up, the question of the American occupation. The latest opinion polls show that seven out of ten Iraqis want foreign forces to leave Iraq, and most want them to leave now. One of the problems of the Iraqi government sitting in the Green Zone [is that] being associated with the occupation taints them and reduces their authority. Lots of people you talk to here, particularly Sunni, don't just say "the government," they say "the traitor government." In some ways this is extremely simple and obvious. There are very few countries in the world that welcome being occupied. And it's sort of strange that this very obvious fact—which has probably been a critical fact for why the U.S. is in such trouble here—has never really penetrated Washington.

MJ: In your piece marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion, you describe Iraq as "a collection of hostile Sunni and Shia ghettoes divided by high concrete walls." That's a pretty grim picture. Do you see any reason for optimism on the horizon?

PC: Well, not greatly. Because it seems to me that all the things that have led to the violence are still there. The current situation reminds me of the war in Lebanon, which went on really from the mid-70s to 1990. You had periods where there was kind of an unstable balance of power. Baghdad has the same feeling at the moment. Sunni and Shia aren't coming together; they don't go into each other's areas. The Sunni-Shia dispute, the Arab-Kurd dispute, the Iraqi-American dispute—none of these things are resolved and any of them could ignite at any moment, and almost certainly will.

One of the problems with the media covering this place is that there are stereotypes of news, one of which is "war rages" and the other is "peace dawns." And there isn't much in between. When I talk to foreign journalists, often they are gritting their teeth because they've been asked for a piece about how shops are reopening and restaurants are reopening and so forth—happy pieces. And it just ain't so.