Mini Book Review: Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq by Patrick Cockburn

The London Independent‘s Patrick Cockburn is simply the most important and well-informed journalist working in Iraq today. His new book Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq is crucial to understanding the new political dynamic governing today’s Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003, and the implications for Iraq’s future of the newly empowered and hitherto repressed majority of the Iraq population, the Shi’a. The book’s crescendo details the socio-political conditions and day-to-day events on the ground, which gave rise to the young and stern looking cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Sadrist movement’s entry into the US-led coalition’s sights. If you’re looking for a biography of the elusive al-Sadr then you’ll be disappointed, since Muqtada’s personality, intentions as well as documentation of the man’s rapid learning curve and steadily sharpened political instincts from the beginnings of the occupation aren’t substantively addressed until two thirds into the book. This is my sole criticism since on the basis of the title alone some readers could find themselves disappointed. One can’t really blame Cockburn since gaining access to Muqtada himself, extensive primary source material on his upbringing, his personal opinions and sentiments is at the present time a near impossible feat. With the materials Cockburn does have at his disposal he paints a compelling and vivid picture of Muqtada and his Sadrist forbears. But the book also extensively documents Muqtada’s pre-history, and to that end contains illuminating chapters on the Iran-Iraq War, the world-views of the Sadrists’ spiritual father and leading intellectual figure, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and Muqtada’s father, Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s successor as leader to the Sadrist movement. Both were fated to be executed by Saddam Hussein. Cockburn argues that the dispossessed and impoverished Shi’a of Iraq can’t simply be dismissed and pawned off as mere emissaries of Iran. He examines Muqtada’s family and personal history in depth and maps out the roots of his larger constituency and its development into a mass movement, whose ideological outlook comprises Iraqi nationalism, anti-colonialism and radical Shi’ism, posing a direct challenge to Iraq’s traditionally quietist clerical establishment. The Sadrists from their inception have been sympathetic to Khomeinist doctrine and the latter’s notion of velayat-e-faqih, or rule of the jurist-consult, which has deprived a great many, both inside and o utside of Iraq of sleep. He also provides a trenchant assessment of Muqtada’s ruthless pragmatism and great political acumen, evident merely in virtue of the fact that he has managed to survive in Iraq’s turbulent political climate thus far, but also his links to the brutal slaying of his perceived rival, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abul-Qassim Khoei. Unlike important scholarly works such as Faleh A. Jabar’s The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq and Yitzhak Nakash’s The Shi’is of Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq is written with Cockburn’s typical flair and verve and is near impossible to put down once you’ve started reading. If you’ve read Cockburn’s earlier book which chronicles the vicissitudes of Iraq’s political scene post-Operation Iraqi Freedom (yeah, right), The Occupation, then you know what I’m talking about. Cockburn has provided us with a compelling account of contemporary Iraq and the ascendance of a new political force in the form of Muqtada and the underbelly of the forsaken and forgotten members of Iraq’s Shi’a community. He has achieved an incredible feat journalism at great personal risk, which renders his efforts praiseworthy in themselves. He has performed an immense service to anyone who wishes to get their hands on an accurate depiction of the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq and its people making, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, a depressing and yet necessary breath of fresh air if there ever was one.

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, Patrick Cockburn, Faber & Faber, 2008

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