Patrick Cockburn's politics may be misguided, but he is a reporter and analyst of the first order. His biography of Iraq's foremost Shia power-broker is by far the most useful book about post-Saddam Iraq, and helps us to better understand the country's faltering progress towards democracyby Bartle Bull / May 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (Faber, £16.99)
In late August 2004, I found myself among about 2,000 poor Shia Iraqis in the ancient mosque at Kufa, near Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad. The second siege of Najaf—the first had been in April—was winding down after three weeks of intense fighting. The Kufa mosque had been struck by an American missile a few days earlier, outraging Shia believers across the world. Just inside the mosque’s entrance was a pile of the shoes of dead fighters. In the small office where I had taken refuge on a floor, a couple of dozen young men slumped next to me against the walls, bloodied, dusty and weary. A young mullah, lean and handsome—like many of Muqtada al-Sadr’s youthful lieutenants—played with the tail-fin of a mortar with a hand wrapped in a bloody bandage as he drew me diagrams of the battle with a finger on a dusty table.
My sanctuary inside the mosque was frightening enough for an American reporter with little Arabic. When I went outside to look for my translator and driver, I was even more scared, as angry crowds swirled about. But no one tried to hurt me in that wild couple of hours. American and European civilians in Iraq during the last five years have almost always felt safer in Shia regions and neighbourhoods than in Sunni ones.
It was al Qaeda and the Baathists, the two principal Sunni sources of violence in Iraq, who kidnapped and beheaded foreigners. The Mahdi army of Muqtada al-Sadr, the only Shia group to fight the coalition head on, rarely kidnapped foreigners, and invariably freed them when they did. Even Mahdi army splinter groups beyond the control of the al-Sadr hierarchy could usually be prevailed upon by Muqtada’s office to free their captives. One soon learned that the bombers who claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians were invariably Sunni. These nuances of violence taught a foreign observer the emerging truths of Iraq’s politics in a most visceral way.
The story of Iraq over the last five years is one not of US and British soldiers with all their failures, successes and tragedies. It is the story of Iraqis and the realignment of their politics after 30 years of Baathism. It is the story of Iraq becoming a Shia country. The biggest surprise,…