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Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia

Revival and the Struggle for Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn (Author)

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Time magazine listed him as one of its “100 People Who Shape Our World.” Newsweek featured him on its cover under the headline “How Al-Sadr May Control U.S. Fate in Iraq.” Paul Bremer denounced him as a “Bolshevik Islamist” and ordered that he be captured “dead or alive.” Who is Muqtada al-Sadr, and why is he so vital to the future of Iraq and, arguably, the entire Middle East?

In this compellingly readable account, prize-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn tells the story of Muqtada’s rise to become the leader of Iraq’s poor Shi’ites and the resistance to the occupation. Cockburn looks at the killings by Saddam’s executioners and hit men of the young cleric’s father, two brothers, and father-in-law; his leadership of the seventy-thousand-strong Mehdi Army; the fierce rivalries between him and other Shia religious leaders; his complex relationship with the Iraqi government; and his frequent confrontations with the American military, including battles that took place in Najaf in 2004. The portrait that emerges is of a complex man and a sophisticated politician, who engages with religious and nationalist aspirations in a manner unlike any other Iraqi leader.

Cockburn, who was among the very few Western journalists to remain in Baghdad during the Gulf War and has been an intrepid reporter of Iraq ever since, draws on his extensive firsthand experience in the country to produce a book that is richly interwoven with the voices of Iraqis themselves. His personal encounters with the Mehdi Army include a tense occasion when he was nearly killed at a roadblock outside the city of Kufa.

Though it often reads like an adventure story, Muqtada is also a work of painstaking research and measured analysis that leads to a deeper understanding both of one of the most critical conflicts in the world today and of the man who may well be a decisive voice in determining the future of Iraq when the Americans eventually leave.

Chapter Thirteen

The Fall of Najaf

On August 6, 2004, Abbas Fadhel, a twenty-four-year-old member of a Mehdi Army company, volunteered with a group of other fighters in Sadr City to go to Najaf to take part in the second battle for the city. It had started three days earlier, and shells and bombs were beginning to destroy much of central Najaf as U.S. Marines fought their way toward the Imam Ali shrine. Abbas had some military training because “when the Mehdi Army was set up we used to train in the open agricultural countryside on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad and pretend that we were hunting.” In addition, he had fought in the resistance against Saddam Hussein some years earlier in Amara and Nassariya provinces, “so I knew how to use a Kalashnikov and a PKC [Russian-made light machine gun].”

Abbas and his companions, who belonged to Mehdi Army’s Ahmed al-Sheibani company, named after the imprisoned representative of Muqtada in Basra, drove in a car on what is normally a two-hour drive from Baghdad. They could see U.S. aircraft bombing groups of young men traveling in the same direction as themselves on the assumption that they were going to join Muqtada’s forces. The crashes of the explosions unnerved the young men in the car. “Some got out and disappeared into nearby farms or took lifts in passing cars going back to Baghdad,” says Abbas. As they arrived at al-Aoun, a village surrounded by date palms just north of Najaf where Shia insurgents had briefly fought Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard to a standstill in the uprising of 1991, the driver of the car finally lost his nerve. Though he was a follower of Muqtada, he suddenly announced that he was going no farther and was returning to Baghdad. His fear infected others among Abbas’s remaining companions, who took their last chance to avoid fighting in a battle in which they knew they were very likely to die. (These defections are striking because they show that the militiamen in Sadr City were not all fanatical fighters carelessly willing to become martyrs for Muqtada and Islam.)

The flight of the driver left the four remaining members of the party that had set out from Baghdad a few hours earlier standing disconsolately beside the road. “We four walked on foot to the Haidaria region using an unpaved dirt track because we were frightened of the American bombardment,” recalls Abbas. “We came across a small saloon car whose driver said, ‘Get in and I will drive you to Najaf.’ I do not think he was entirely in his right mind, though he was not completely crazy, either. As he drove he kept yelling at people beside the road, saying ‘You are cowards and agents of the occupier.’ We stayed silent and did not speak to him. The situation was very dangerous because we were twice targeted by American snipers and we were very exposed because there were no other cars moving on the roads. He drove us by streets he knew until we were close to the Imam Ali shrine, and would not take any money when he dropped us off, saying, ‘This is my work.’ Najaf was a ghost city, with all the shops closed and there was nobody to be seen apart from Sadrist fighters.” During a bombardment, Abbas, by now reduced to a single companion, took refuge inside the shrine.

When the shelling stopped, the two young men left the city again to rendezvous with a company of Mehdi Army fighters near the so-called Sea of Najaf, a lake just to the west of the city. “They trusted us when we showed them our identity cards, which were given to us in Baghdad, proving that we belonged to the Ahmed al-Sheibani company. We began shooting from a long distance at an American convoy. We never saw American soldiers on foot. They were always in tanks or armored vehicles, even inside the city, and also there were strikes by helicopters.” The Mehdi Army militamen were very conscious of their military inferiority compared to the far better equipped U.S. Marines, who could kill them without suffering any equivalent losses. They did what they could to combat American armor. Abbas says that a man named Karim Dra’am, who repaired cars in Sadr City, came to Najaf and modified Katyusha rockets and mortar bombs so they would destroy an American tank, but he was killed in action.

Suffering heavy losses and under continual bombardment, the militiamen were ordered to retreat to the Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace, the largest cemetery in the world, some six miles by two miles in size, where at least two million Shia are buried, eager to have their final resting place close to the shrine of Imam Ali. Wadi al-Salaam is more of a necropolis or a City of the Dead than a cemetery, and spreads out in a great semicircle around Najaf. A few of its streets are wide enough to drive a car down, but most are winding lanes; only the grave diggers really know the layout. Even under Saddam Hussein, when the Iran-Iraq border was officially closed, pious Shia in Iran and elsewhere would pay border tribes to smuggle the bodies of deceased relatives across the frontier to be buried in Wadi al-Salaam. There are also larger tombs belonging to rich families, which look like small mosques or shrines, their walls painted a vivid pink or green. On the tombs there are sometimes photographs of the dead — aging sheikhs in Arab headdresses and young men in jackets and ties. Many members of the Mehdi Army who had been killed in the April battles were interred in the Wadi al-Salaam in plots bought by Muqtada, and they were soon to be joined by more of his militiamen.

“We fled to the cemetery and stayed in the crypts and fought from there,” relates Abbas, who is very open about his terrifying experience. “The bombing continued day and night. We saw the graves being demolished and our companions killed. We buried the martyrs without washing them because they were martyrs and the weather was hot [Muslims traditionally wash their dead before burying them, but in Wadi al-Salaam there was little water and bodies rapidly decomposed in the heat].” At night the surviving fighters received water and food from the people of Najaf. “The water came in bottles and our food was biscuits twice a day, though in that situation we did not have much appetite. I saw two cars come from Fallujah with humanitarian aid and Muqtada thanked them. We found that there was food on top and weapons underneath. I don’t know how they were able to get past American checkpoints. One morning a rumor spread that Sayyid Muqtada had been killed, and some fighters retreated, but others fought even harder. Then in the afternoon Muqtada came and visited the fighters, his hand wrapped in a white bandage. He fought with us and we saw him hold an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade launcher] and fire it at the American tanks. He was always turning up during the battle, though he kept his movements secret.”

A second round in the battle for Najaf was always predictable. In the April crisis Muqtada had, surprisingly, emerged as the outright winner in the confrontation that Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority had half provoked and half tumbled into in their clumsy and counterproductive attempt to eliminate Muqtada as a political force. They achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted, elevating Muqtada into a major player as the world watched the Mehdi Army stand up to the U.S. assault for almost a month. Muqtada had been extremely lucky, or had chosen his moment superbly well, in that his uprising coincided precisely with the crisis in Fallujah. Thanks to extraordinary bungling by the CPA, the Sunni insurgents had acquired their own semi-independent capital half an hour’s drive west of Baghdad. This diverted U.S. attention and made the U.S. Army nervous about fighting a two-front war against both Sunni and Shia. The CPA made a humiliating retreat from its threat to arrest Muqtada and disarm and disband the Mehdi Army. In any event, many of the militiamen did not even leave Najaf, as its leaders had pledged. “Muqtada gave an order saying everybody had to go back to his family,” recalls Ali Ahmed, who took part in the April uprising. “But many of our men stayed inside Najaf saying that the truce was just a lie, and they also moved into nearby regions such as Mashkab, Haidaria, and Abbasia.”

By August the authorities in Baghdad were stronger than they had been in April. An interim Iraqi government had been installed with Iyad Allawi as prime minister on June 28, 2004, and sovereignty had in theory been transferred back to Iraq. There was a great deal less in this than met the eye. The United States had total control over security policy. Freshly raised Iraqi military units were incapable of fighting anybody. The new regime resembled many authoritarian regimes already existing in the Middle East, but unlike them, it did not even have its own security service or control of its own army. The Iraqi National Intelligence Service under General Mohammed al-Shahwani was openly funded by the CIA. Iyad Allawi had long been close to the British intelligence service MI-6 and the CIA. His defense minister, Hazem al-Shalaan, had a personal interest in getting rid of Muqtada, as he had been part of Sayyid Majid al-Khoei’s party who had made the fatal journey to Najaf in April 2003. But he had not been prominent in the opposition to Saddam Hussein and, along with the new interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, was a long-term exile with very limited experience of Iraqi life. Both of these security ministers vehemently denounced Muqtada and the Mehdi Army as cat’s-paws of Iran during the coming crisis. Such declarations were a joy to the ears of the administration in Washington, but they were untrue or grossly exaggerated. Despite the lessons that should have been learned in the April crisis, the United States and its Iraqi allies still underestimated Shia solidarity and the mass support for Muqtada. This was a serious weakness because the key to destroying Muqtada and his movement was to isolate him from the hawza, the Shia political parties, and the Shia community as a whole.

Muqtada’s position was both stronger and weaker than four months earlier. He had solidified his grip on Sadr City and he still…

Product Details:

  • Hardcover: 240 pages

  • Publisher: Scribner (April 8, 2008)

  • Language: English

  • ISBN-10: 1416551476

  • ISBN-13: 978-1416551478

Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival

and the Struggle for Iraq

by Patrick Cockburn

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