In the name of the father

The inability to comprehend Muqtada al Sadr and the Shia movement may have been America's worst blunder in Iraq.

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The inability to comprehend Muqtada al Sadr and the Shia movement his father built may have been America’s worst blunder in Iraq. Robert Baer explains.

Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq
Patrick Cockburn
Faber and Faber

When the United States decided to invade Iraq, it had no idea who Muqtada al Sadr was, let alone that a year later Sadr would challenge America for control of the country. Nor does it fully understand that today Sadr stands on the threshold of becoming the one Iraqi who could lead a popular resistance movement and bring the occupation to an abrupt end. In arguably the best book to emerge from post-invasion Iraq, Patrick Cockburn demonstrates, through the story of Muqtada, how the invasion and occupation of Iraq went so horribly wrong. The failure to understand who Muqtada is or what he represents - the indelible populist, anti-colonial watermark that runs through Iraq - doomed the occupation to failure.

Cockburn has spent decades covering Iraq from inside the country; he saw Saddam Hussein at the zenith of his power and witnessed his brutality first-hand. Cockburn was in Iraq during the 13-year sanctions regime, and watched the country crumble, day by day, into poverty. He knows that to understand the reality of Iraq, you have to spend your days in Sadr City, Karbala and Najaf. There you begin to understand Muqtada and the fervour of his dedicated, unpaid footsoldiers. Cockburn doesn't say when he figured it out, but at some point he realised that the parable of Muqtada is the story of Iraq.

After September 11 American neo-conservatives decided that the status quo in the Middle East had to be smashed. But they had no idea what would take its place - only foggy notions about democracy and the empowerment of women. They knew little or nothing about Iraq's Shia beyond what exiles backing the invasion told them. The most notorious of these was Ahmad Chalabi, who headed the Iraqi National Congress. The INC was supposed to be an umbrella organisation, uniting the Iraqi opposition, from the Kurds to Iranian-based Shia groups. But the INC was a mere propaganda outfit, feeding journalists stories in the push for war. Chalabi's lies and betrayals are legion, but in light of the rise of Sadr, his mischaracterisations of Iraq's Shia may turn out to have been the most egregious.

In a confidential paper, still unpublished as far as I know, written for Washington's Iraq hawks in 1994, Chalabi airily dismissed the significance of the failed March 1991 uprisings in the Shia south: "The insurrection in the south that followed the uprising continues to simmer. The failure of the Islamic groups supported by Iran to wrest control from Saddam in the south has served to diminish any support or hope that the local population had in them. Their behaviour during the Intifada is increasingly believed to have been the cause of its failure."

The Bush administration was led to believe that Iran and its proxies were out of the picture, and they looked to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to keep the Shia in line. Sistani has the largest following in the world of Twelver Shia Islam, but he is a "quietist" and was unwilling to dirty his hands in day-to-day politics, which was what Iraq needed in the chaos that followed the invasion. Sistani was vocal in his support for the American-sponsored elections. But it was the Shia close to Iran - Sistani did not run for office or field a slate of candidates - that swept the parliamentary elections in 2005. Sadr, a man not even mentioned in Chalabi's paper, took some 30 seats. Chalabi won none.

Today the Bush administration depicts Sadr as an Iranian proxy. As Cockburn adroitly lays out, this couldn't be farther from the truth. Muqtada al Sadr is the scion of one of Shia Islam's most revered clerical families. He is a distant relative of Musa Sadr, the man who invented modern Shia revivalism in Lebanon, (murdered by Libya in 1978). Muqtada is the son-in-law and second cousin of Muhammad Baqir al Sadr, the founder of Iraqi Da'wa executed by Saddam in 1980.

But it is the legacy of Muqtada's father that has positioned him at the centre of Iraqi politics. Muhammad Sadiq al Sadr was appointed Grand Ayatollah of Iraq in 1992 by Saddam Hussein, who felt the elder Sadr would be easily controlled. But under the noses of Saddam's secret police, he built a powerful populist movement among Iraq's Shia underclass: refugees in Baghdad's vast Shia slum (now named Sadr City in his honour), the Shia poor across the south, and the tribes who had been traditionally marginalised in Shia politics. Attending with care to the personal needs of his flock, Muhammad Sadiq distanced himself from the elitist clerics in Najaf, including Sistani. His rise coincided with the sanctions that impoverished the Iraqi people, and rather than cloistering himself in a seminary he lived in a modest house in Najaf and offered poor Shia everything he could.

By 1999 Saddam had realised the extent of Sadr's popularity and had him assassinated, along with two of his sons, while they were driving in Najaf. But Muhammad Sadiq has never been forgotten. And as the founder of Iraq's first genuine social revolution, he is still widely revered by Iraqi Shia today. After his father's assassination, Muqtada all but disappeared, making himself scarce to elude Saddam's attention. But after the invasion he picked up his father's mantle, taking control of Sadr City and condemning the occupation from the pulpit. His vast, unpaid militias stopped the looting of Shia neighbourhoods, organised garbage collection, and kept the electricity running as best they could. Sadr couldn't pay his militiamen, but he helped them make ends meet by placing them in the ministries he controlled and allowing them to collect an informal tax.

Sadr stood in stark contrast to the Shia exiles who returned to Iraq with the Americans, and not only because he was early and vocal in his demands for American withdrawal. Iraq has had a xenophobic strain since the Mongols smashed Baghdad in 1258, and Sadr's refrain of defiance and anti-colonialism has a vast audience, which grows with every suicide bombing in a Shia neighbourhood. Sadr's message is clear: the Americans can't protect you, but I can.

Muqtada was not an Iranian creation; indeed, his father's populist movement posed a direct threat to the authority of the Iranian mullahs. Muhammad Sadiq made it clear that the Iraqi Shia did not need Tehran or Qum, Iran's spiritual centre, to guide them in divine affairs, undercutting the Iranian claim to lead all Twelver Shia. During the 1990s the Iranians went so far as to depict Muhammad Sadiq as an agent of Saddam - only to be embarrassed when Saddam had him killed.

But the Iranians have more than compensated for this sleight; when the Mahdi Army rose against the coalition in 2004, Iran worked behind the scenes to negotiate a truce, just as it did in March 2008 when the Iraqi government made a failed attempt to recapture Basra from the Mahdi Army. Iran has started to pay the salaries of Mahdi soldiers and to train them in Iran. More ominously, as Muqtada has been forced on the run, Iran worked to recruit commanders in the Mahdi Army. Without resources of his own, Muqtada can only stand by and watch. The bitter truth Muqtada has learned is that revolutions are watered by money and guns as well as faith and nationalism. Only Iran can supply the former. Although Muqtada would dispute it, and Washington is uncertain about the connection between Iran and Muqtada, Cockburn has Mahdi Army commanders and soldiers on the record acknowledging their support from Tehran.

The Iranians have no interest in occupying Iraq; their goal is to control the country through proxies. The annexation will be a soft one: Iran will patiently show that it can be the fair arbiter of quarrels between the Shia, all the while suborning clerics and individual military commanders. Iran will offer Iraq a new outlet to the Gulf for oil. And when the United States leaves, Iran will be prepared to offer a peacekeeping force when asked by the Iraqi government. America won the campaign for Iraq, but Iran won Iraq.

You can be sure the Shia in Iraq are studying the history of Iran's involvement in Lebanon. Through the 1980s, Lebanon's main secular party Amal fought a vicious war with Hizbollah, Iran's surrogate, that resembled the clashes between the Mahdi Army and Iran's mainstream Shia parties. The Iranians, over the course of five years, patiently bribed, cajoled and threatened Lebanon's Shia until they stopped killing one another; as the arbiter of that truce Iran now has a veto in Lebanese politics, and it will surely try the same in Iraq.

Upon finishing Cockburn's book one cannot help but conclude that the invasion of Iraq will go down in history as one of the greatest strategic blunders of modern times. It will be up to the historians to determine why no one in Washington understood what Mohammad Sadiq al Sadr and his son Muqtada represented. But they should have known that removing Saddam and turning Iraq over to its Shia majority would mark the first time - since the Fatimids controlled 12th century Egypt - that an Arab country was ruled by Shia. The American invasion has merely added another Arab country to Iran's sphere of influence.

And if Muqtada's populist star continues to rise - is the United States going to stop it? - the region will continue on its path of cataclysmic social change, in ways no one can anticipate, all of them very far removed from what the foolhardy architects of the American invasion envisaged.

Robert Baer served as a CIA officer for 21 years. His books See No Evil and Sleeping with the Devil were the basis for the film Syriana.