Soon after America's army had invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein, an obscure Iraqi Muslim cleric was asked what he thought had just happened. Instead of exulting in the fall of a dictator who had almost exterminated his family, the 30-year-old Muqtada al-Sadr told his few followers, "The smaller devil has gone but the bigger devil has come." This from a man who then had no claim to fame other than an illustrious family name. But as Patrick Cockburn, the Independent's veteran Middle East correspondent, says in his new book, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq (Allen & Unwin, 240pp; $29.95), "Muqtada al-Sadr is the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the US invasion."
And after reading Cockburn's book, along with the daily reports of the ever-expanding American-made disaster in Iraq, I would go further and say that Muqtada will very likely rule his country after the Americans pack their tents and depart, which will start soon after George W Bush leaves office, next January. For there is no one among the discredited pack of incompetents, sycophants and corrupt opportunists now ruling Iraq as America's placemen who could possibly challenge Muqtada. That's if no one assassinates him of course, and assassination is the favoured way of changing leaders in Iraq.
Anyone with any interest in the Middle East now has a fair idea of the back-story to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Americans, with mainly British support, used downright lies and absolute belief in very dodgy information from Iraqi exiles to attack the country on the now-disproved grounds that its dictator, Saddam Hussein, had an advanced program to produce rocketry that could dump his stockpiles of high explosives and poison gas on his neighbours. He would be able to hit Israel, and even Europe, and he had an advanced nuclear-development program that would soon give him the bomb.
We now know that none of that was true. We also know that a vast assemblage of peoples - especially Iraqis, Iranians and Afghanis - were unlucky to be alive when the stupidest man ever elected to high office in America, George W Bush, became president. This criminally gullible man can be blamed, because it is his war, for the deaths of a hundred thousand Iraqi civilians, the deaths of more than 4000 American soldiers and the crippling of his own nation as an economic power. The cost of the war to America is so great that the mind can hardly encompass the figures: will it cost US$1 trillion ... or US$3 trillion? You can't take in the figures, which is probably why Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the American Senate, put it this way in April: "This is a war that is costing the United States $5000 per second."
Yet if Muqtada al-Sadr ever gets to be the leader of the new Iraq, he will have Bush and his $5000-a-second war to thank. The war ruined Iraq, but it also got rid of Muqtada's most deadly enemy.
Muqtada is one of the two surviving sons of a famous Shiah cleric and opponent of Saddam Hussein, Ayotollah Muhammad al-Sadr. His family's fate was probably sealed by George W Bush's father, George HW Bush, who called on the Iraqi Shiah to rise against Saddam's Sunni regime after the short American campaign that drove Saddam's occupying forces out of Kuwait in 1991. The Shiah, who make up two-thirds of Iraq's population, did rebel, and having been encouraged by the Americans they expected American aid when Saddam's well-equipped army struck back. The Americans did nothing, and tens of thousands of Shiah fighters and their families were slaughtered, including Muqtada's father and two elder brothers. Muqtada was left responsible for his remaining family and any public life he might choose. Under Saddam, he really had no future except probable martyrdom. Now he has a future, and he's not grateful to the people who gave it to him.
It would not occur to members of George W Bush's militantly Christian regime that the callous betrayal of the Shiah fighters and their leaders in 1991 was reason enough for Muqtada to regard the Americans as "the bigger devil". And America was also the major instigator of the other misery that haunted all Shiah and most Sunni Iraqis in the '90s: the enforcement of sanctions against Saddam. Oil exports, Iraq's only earner, were cut to almost nothing. The civilian population was reduced to penury; hospitals had no medical supplies and equipment failed; government services collapsed. Patrick Cockburn, who was reporting from inside Iraq in those years, writes bitterly about this dreadful time, when the sanctions killed more Iraqis than Saddam's busy butchers. Thousands of old people and children died from disease and starvation. Naturally, Saddam and his enforcers avoided the pain, using smuggled oil to pay for their lifestyles. But the poorest of the poor, the Shiah, had nothing, and Muqtada watched them starve.
The Americans gave Muqtada his chance when they eliminated Saddam. He was free to preach sermons, form his own political party and gather around him the increasingly unhappy young Iraqi men who had seen their country looted and wrecked, and their Sunni and Shiah countrymen engaged in deadly battles with each other and the occupying forces. These young men created what is now a formidable armed militia known as the Mehdi Army, a 60,000-man force capable of taking on the American military on its chosen battlegrounds of big city streets.
Yet the Americans thought they had it all worked out. They would go in, depose Saddam and break up his military, receive the plaudits of a grateful population, and withdraw leaving the country in the hands of a government formed by pro-American Iraqi exiles. The American intelligence budget is almost US$45 billion a year, but all that money, all those spies, all those satellites were unable to tell the agencies that their informants were frauds and that the now-disbanded Sunni army hated them for leaving the Sunnis jobless and penniless. And nobody worked out that the Shiah had lost enough people to Saddam's killers to fuel a thousand years of blood feuds, and had formed an undying hatred for the Americans who had betrayed and then starved them.
Muqtada has gone from strength to strength as his opponents have weakened. The unpopular Iraqi government, cowering in the fortified Green Zone of Baghdad, is seen as a group of American puppets; and the new Iraqi military, which the Americans are trying to train to take control, stubbornly refuses to fight too hard, especially against its Shiah brothers in the Mehdi Army. Muqtada has grown in stature by fighting, manipulating and humiliating both the Americans and the government. His forces attack in areas like their stronghold of Sadr City, a vast, poor suburb of Baghdad. Some Americans die, then their countrymen react with airpower and artillery and hundreds of Iraqis die. Then Muqtada declares a ceasefire and the waiting game begins again. The stakes rose again in late April, with Muqtada threatening "open war" if the Americans don't halt operations against his forces.
It should be noted that as its title suggests, this book is not a biography. In fact, in an odd piece of structuring or editing, Muqtada al-Sadr doesn't really appear until halfway through, although he is the central figure in what is a short but compelling political survey of the American disaster in Iraq. A biography would have told us more about a person whom Cockburn, at one point, is reduced to calling "a man of mystery". Muqtada hardly ever gives interviews, and his inner circle hasn't blabbed to foreign journalists. He is, Cockburn reports, a strict Muslim, an Iraqi nationalist and not an Iranian puppet. And if the areas he now controls are anything to go by, the women who wore tight jeans and T-shirts, and the men who enjoyed their arak under the secular Saddam, will have to forgo these pleasures if Muqtada takes over the whole country.
What is most astonishing is that in only five years a young man with very little knowledge of politics and the world outside the mosque walls has developed skills that enable him to humble and frustrate the self-proclaimed most powerful nation in the world. As Cockburn concludes, "Muqtada represented the ultimate American nightmare in Iraq. They had not got rid of Saddam only to see him replaced by a black-turbaned, virulently anti-American Shiah cleric. Whatever reason the US had invaded Iraq for, it was not for this."
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