Muqtada's Got a Posse

On March 20, Bush administration Iraq hands Dan Senor and Roman Martinez published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Whatever Happened to Muqtada?" The item -- which was accompanied by a cartoon drawing of the Iraqi cleric that seemed inspired by racist propaganda of the 1930s -- declared Sadr a spent force in Iraqi politics.

Senor and Martinez were engaged in what has now become a semi-annual ritual among pro-Iraq war cultists: Prematurely celebrating the demise of the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Last year, Crooked Timber blogger John Quiggin compiled a partial list of Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds' premature "Sadr is finished!" ejaculations.)

Senor and Martinez's blithe declaration of Sadr's decline, their presentation of him as a rogueish rabble-rouser, and their failure to acknowledge of the deep resonance of his message in Iraqi society was unsurprising. The article is emblematic of the pro-war community's enduring, simplistic view of Sadr as a crude bandit or, as Senor put it himself back in 2004, a "thug." Despite all that has occurred in the intervening years, their view of Muqtada and what he represents has not grown any more complex.

A substantially more detailed understanding of the young cleric is provided by reporter Patrick Cockburn in his new book Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. Cockburn has been covering Iraq, first for the Financial Times and then for The Independent, since the late 1970s. He has been one of the keenest observers of the war on the ground, and his book represents a welcome intervention into the Iraq debate, which is too often dominated by ideologues with little apparent knowledge of a region, and religion, they insist can be bombed toward reform.

Muqtada represents the Iraq we found, which was not what had been expected. Rather than work with that Iraq, the U.S. has continually tried to reshape reality to its liking. From the beginning, the U.S. occupation consistently treated Sadr's movement as a problem to be solved, rather than a genuine constituency to be accommodated, as demonstrated by Paul Bremer's shocking declaration, as recounted by Ali Allawi, that Bremer "didn't care a damn about the underclass and what they [the Sadrists] represented!" It was the inability and unwillingness of U.S. policymakers to deal with this Iraq, rather than the Iraq of neoconservative hallucination, that fed the chaos and led to the years of staggering violence and humanitarian catastrophe which have scarred a generation of Iraqis.

Muqtada and the continued persistence of his movement can be seen as the definitive refutation of Bush's Iraq policy, which held that a new, secular democratic Iraq could serve as a U.S. ally in the war on terror and a bulwark against Iran. "Muqtada epitomized the central dilemma of the United States in Iraq, which it has never resolved," Cockburn summarizes. By removing Saddam Hussein's regime and empowering an Iraqi Shia-Kurd alliance, we effectively established Iran as a new regional hegemon. "It was the U.S. attempt to create and anti-Iranian Iraq that was to play into Iranian hands and produce the very situation that Washington was trying to avoid."

Anticipating the Bush administration's recent "Iran in Iraq" propaganda push, Cockburn notes "it was bizarre that George W. Bush was to claim repeatedly … that Muqtada and the Mehdi Army were Iranian pawns," when parties the U.S. supported, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), now known as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), "were demonstrably Iranian creations." Cockburn also rightly recognizes that "the lack of U.S. criticism of SCIRI/ISCI was because it had shown itself ready to work with the United States after the occupation." Cockburn makes clear that by aligning with the most overtly pro-Iranian Shia faction (SCIRI/ISCI) against the most credibly nationalist, anti-Iranian faction (the Sadrists), the United States encouraged the Sadrists to become closer to Iran.

That Saddam had thoroughly and brutally controlled Iraqi society was well understood. What was not understood was the way in which Iraqis had developed modes of resistance which could exist independent of, and in opposition to, efforts by outsiders to remake the society. Cockburn relates an anecdote near the beginning of the book that captures the paranoia of Shia Iraq during Saddam Hussein's reign of terror. In order to smoke out infiltrators, new religious students in Najaf were asked by their teacher to unwrap and rewrap their turbans. Those who couldn't do so were immediately revealed as government agents. This is the conspiratorial atmosphere in which Muqtada was born and raised, and in which his activism was shaped. The book is full of such observations, each of which carefully adds to a picture of an Iraq so different from the one that American policymakers had been led to believe -- or more likely chose to believe --existed.

One of the book's best contributions is Cockburn's reporting on the career of Muqtada's father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr. After Saddam had brutally suppressed post-Gulf War Shia intifada (encouraged and then abandoned by President George H. W. Bush) in 1991, he was desperate to weaken the authority of the Shia clerical establishment, who he believed to be loyal to Iran. Saddam's solution was to support Sadeq al-Sadr, a relatively minor cleric of Arab background, and to use him as a wedge to divide Arab Shia from the Persian-dominated hawza. After a period of quiescence toward the regime, during which time he created a network of like-minded clerical activists, Sadr began to direct his rhetoric against Saddam. In 1999 Saddam had him assassinated. Muqtada, though living under constant threat of assassination himself, was able to maintain his father’'s network, and then activate it quickly after the U.S. invasion.

Among the most egregious continuing misconceptions about Sadr is that he is simply a militia leader. In fact, the Mahdi Army is the paramilitary wing (in Iraq, almost every political group has one) of the Organization of the Martyr Sadr -- a reference to Muqtada's father. (Aware of the tendency of Western media to present religious nationalism as a distinctly Oriental phenomenon, Cockburn makes appropriate comparisons to the way in which Catholicism informed political activism in Poland and in Cockburn's native Ireland. The Mahdi Army was, like most gangs, formed for protection.) Following the social services model developed by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Sadr has established his group as both defender and sustainer of his community. As a recent report from Refugees International indicated, the Organization of the Martyr Sadr is the biggest aid agency in Iraq.

As regards Muqtada's own oft-derided personal intelligence, which seems to be an article of faith among the pro-war community, Cockburn suggests that Muqtada has cultivated a reputation for dimwittedness, first to appear non-threatening to Saddam, and later to the U.S. occupation. While it's impossible to answer this with any certainty, I think a poker metaphor is in order. Anyone who plays poker regularly has had the experience of sitting down to a game with a lucky novice. They don't seem to know the rules, yet they keep getting chips. After a few hours, you look over at that stack of chips, and you realize that they weren't a novice, you just misjudged them. And in order to win at poker, you don't have to be an expert; you just have to play better than everyone else at the table.

This Muqtada has consistently done. He has shown that he knows what hands to play, what to throw away. He's known when to check, when to raise, when to push all in, and, importantly, when to take a bathroom break. He knows that it's not about who wins each individual hand, or even the most hands. It's about who accumulates the most chips. Five years in, and Muqtada has a very substantial stack in front of him. But people are still writing him off as a novice. Whatever skills he lacks, he has successfully presented himself as an emblem for all that the Shia suffered under Saddam, and as an instrument for their righteous satisfaction of grievances. Whether or not Iraq collapses back into complete violence depends on whether his followers, who number in the millions, feel that their decades of suffering and deprivation have been appropriately acknowledged and addressed.