By Robert S. Eshelman
July 29, 2008.
"Firebrand." It was the ubiquitous moniker used to describe
American Viceroy L. Paul Bremer III had just shut down al-Sadr's
More recently, this label has given way to that of "Iranian-backed" -- conjuring comparisons to
In both cases, these depictions serve to portray al-Sadr as an irrational, extremist proxy, who, to a great degree, has contributed to
But as Patrick Cockburn, the
"Part of the mystery concerning Muqtada has its origin in simple ignorance," writes Cockburn. Muqtada's emergence as a central figure in
Over the first several chapters of Muqtada, Cockburn traces this largely untold, and, indeed, bloody chronicle.
At the heart of Muqtada's backstory are his father-in-law -- Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr -- and his father -- Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. Both attained the honorific of Grand Ayatollah and were killed by Saddam's regime. Baqir was executed in 1980 and Sadiq was assassinated in 1999, along with two of Muqtada's brothers.
These two figures -- who remain highly revered by Iraqi Shiite today -- bequeathed Muqtada a bounty of religious and political legitimacy upon becoming the leader of the Sadrist movement.
Bound up with the Sadr family biography is an intricate history of modern
Cockburn, who has been reporting from
American dailies churn out stories of a centralized, albeit struggling, political system -- where power emanates from the American Embassy, the military and, nominally, from Iraqi governmental institutions. But Cockburn's articles convey a more complicated, troubling view of the dysfunctional occupation, and expose the deep wounds of
During that time, Muqtada skillfully played his hand vis-à-vis the
Muqtada does not appear as a principal character in Cockburn's book until the ninth chapter, roughly halfway through, and is rarely quoted directly, not to mention interviewed at length. This may seem odd at first but is, in fact, what makes this book so strikingly relevant.
Like his backstory of the Iraqi Shiite and the Sadr family, Cockburn shows that Muqtada's rise has as much, perhaps more, to do with the setting -- American military and political blunders, sectarian conflict, and intra-Shiite politics -- than it does with any of Muqtada's particular attributes, however crucial those might be.
In a similar vein, Cockburn steers clear of exoticizing
Cockburn also takes up Sadr's difficult-to-pin-down links to sectarian violence and his supposed ties to
"Muqtada al-Sadr is the most important and surprising figure to emerge in
Having toppled Saddam from power in spring 2003, the
"Had [Muqtada] been part of the political process from the beginning," Cockburn writes, "the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous
Cockburn reveals by twists and turns Muqtada's emergence on the political scene and his deftness in building his political movement.
Based on decades of reportage and peppered with interviews with Mehdi fighters, Sadrist insiders and others close to, or knowledgeable of, Muqtada and the Sadrist movement, Cockburn delivers an important book on the post-invasion period.
With provincial elections in Iraq slated to occur later this year and Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki's government clamping down on Sadrist forces in Baghdad and in the Shiite south, Cockburn's Muqtada serves as a necessary guidebook for interpreting the turbulent course that Iraqi politics has taken over the past several years -- and where it is likely to go next.
Robert Eshelman's articles have appeared in The