Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
February 24, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.

Hell No
The Other 43 Percent

Truthdig Bazaar
Free Will

Free Will


more items

Arts and Culture
Email this item Print this item

Geoffrey Wheatcroft on ‘Muqtada’

Posted on May 9, 2008
book cover

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft

(Page 2)

No ruler of a Muslim country can easily wage a full-scale Kulturkampf on “the House of Islam,” but Saddam vigorously persecuted the Shiite leaders, notably the clan then headed by Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, uncle of Moqtada. Told that he must submit to the government, Baqir memorably said, “If my little finger was Baathist, I would cut it off”; he was duly executed by Saddam in 1980. His cousin Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada’s father, succeeded him as the regime’s main opponent; Saddam’s hit men duly assassinated him along with two of his other sons in 1999. Just as Stalin ordained following the murder of Kirov, the assassins were themselves subsequently killed. One can well understand from this story that, although the wholesale dismissal of Baath Party members was one of the worst mistakes the occupying forces made, since it denuded the country of policemen and teachers, Shiites have little fond memory of the Baathists.

Nor do they have much fondness for the Americans. After Saddam’s forces were driven out of Kuwait in 1991 there were some in Washington who wanted to push on and destroy Saddam, and who still bemoan the fact that this was not done. What Bush the Elder said in answer—“We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq”—looks much more convincing now that precisely that has happened. The real crime of the first Bush administration was to encourage a Shiite insurrection (as well as another by the Kurds) and then look away while Saddam savagely suppressed it: Much of what we have witnessed recently is payback for that time.

In one more macabre twist to the plot, the mendacious denial by Saddam’s regime that it had killed Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr may have allowed his son Moqtada to survive; that and his own considerable skill and cunning, “his ability to make swift retreats, politically and militarily, when faced with an adversary of superior strength.” Born in 1973, Moqtada was still in his 20s when he became the leader of the Sadrists. The regime tolerated him, even allowing him to start and edit al-Huda, his own magazine, while he bided his time. He had skillfully exploited the memory of his father even before the invasion gave him the opportunity to assert his authority over a large part of Shiite Iraq when Saddam fell.

It also allowed him to settle some scores. The Sadr clan had a long-standing family feud with Sayyid Majid al-Khoei, another leading opponent of the Baath regime, and “a charming and intelligent man,” according to Cockburn. Within 24 hours of Saddam’s overthrow, Majid was dragged from the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and brutally hacked to death; it was generally assumed (wherever it was not too dangerous to say so) that Moqtada was behind the murder. Cockburn delivers an open verdict, wondering whether someone whose survival instincts had been as well honed as Moqtada’s under Saddam would have been so incautious as to give clear orders in front of witnesses for a murder of this kind. But that is not the same as acquitting him, and the portrait that emerges is of part messianic preacher-man and part ruthless capo di tutti capi.

That does not mean that he is no more than a rabble-rouser, or no less than a new Hitler, both phrases used of Moqtada by Paul Bremer. The appallingly incompetent proconsul wanted to arrest the Sadrist leader, but neither the Iraqi police nor the Spanish component of the coalition forces that happened to be outside Najaf where he had taken refuge was so imprudent as to do this. Moqtada remained at large, and his movement grew in strength. In 2006 the Sadrists fought and won the bloody battle of Baghdad with its accompanying ethnic cleansing of Sunni, but both before that and after he sometimes appeared to seek compromise. Last year he quietly and adroitly vanished for several months, and although he has denounced the occupation, he has for the most part prudently avoided direct confrontation with American forces he cannot possibly match in firepower but which he can most certainly outwit, as he repeatedly has done.

This book is a truly valuable addition to our patchy knowledge of true events in Iraq, although it is not always easy reading. Cockburn is a more workmanlike than graceful writer, there are signs of haste, with events not related in consecutive order and untidy repetitions, and the endlessly tricky nomenclature—“the Grand Ayatollah’s son Mahdi al-Hakim” is not to be confused with either the grand marja Muhsin al-Hakim or Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim—makes more demands than usual on the reader’s concentration. There used to be editions of “War and Peace” with bookmarks listing all the characters and their connections, and such a bookmark would have been no bad idea for this book, maybe with a glossary (Marji’iyyah, mujitihads, al-haram, turba, husseinayas) printed on the other side. 

But Cockburn’s command of the subject is never in doubt, nor his intimate knowledge of the country. He actually likes Iraq and its people, despite everything, and he has a sharp eye for telling detail. Among other nice touches, he observes that you could always tell when a political meeting was made up of people who hadn’t lived in Iraq for too long, since there were no smoke-filled rooms: Whereas most Iraqis chain-smoke, these returning exiles had been conditioned by decades of the American anti-smoking terror.

In a bleak final chapter on “The Disintegration of Iraq,” Cockburn glances scornfully at the catalogue of error the last five years have seen. This has made it possible for some who originally supported the war to offer the sheer incompetence with which it was conducted as an excuse. This defense should not be allowed, since the war was never based on any rational, feasible political project, but it’s true that mismanagement made things far worse than they need have been.

At the time of the invasion, almost all support for Saddam collapsed, and “had life become easier in Shia Iraq in the coming years, this might have undermined the Sadrist movement. Instead, people saw their living standards plummet as provision of food rations, clean water, and electricity failed. Saddam’s officials were corrupt, but the new government cowering in the Green Zone rapidly turned into a kleptocracy comparable to Nigeria or the Congo.” Even Moqtada himself was sometimes in the dark, and was barely able to control the forces he had helped unleash.

All the same, in terms of statecraft he is a veritable Talleyrand or Bismarck compared with the Americans. They never grasped that, however much Iraqis had hated Saddam, few felt that the occupation was legitimate, and they therefore would not give their loyalty to the United States or the Iraqi governments it sponsored. At the same time, the “attempt to create an anti-Iranian Iraq was to play into Iranian hands and produce the very situation that Washington was trying to avoid.” As Jacques Chirac might ask with a Gallic smile, did les anglo-saxons really have any idea what they were doing? 

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of several books, including “The Controversy of Zion,” “The Strange Death of Tory England” and “Yo, Blair!” He is writing a book on Churchill’s reputation before and since his death.

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

Join the conversation

Load Comments

By dihey, May 13, 2008 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

Obviously and not surprisingly the blockhead Bremer is totally ignorant of what ‘Bolshevik’ means. Muqtada’s party is not the largest of the Shiite parties of Iraq. Hence he is at best a ‘Menshevik’Islamist.

Report this

By SusanSunflower, May 11, 2008 at 8:56 am Link to this comment

Actually, I have read variously that Al-Sadr will result in a genocide/dispossession/disenfranchisement of all Sunni AND a “radical fundamentalist Shiite state” ... which does not jibe at ALL with the combination of his wanting to retain a unified Iraq (and his vigorous opposition of efforts by the Kurds and the Southern Shiites to create a tripartite state ... with Baghdad and Sadr City in some Sunni middle third) AND the fact that he has reached out to Sunni politician and they have worked with him ... (and everybody hates the Kurds - joke - but who have lived “autonomously” under our protection from Saddam and with our aid for the last almost 20 years ...) 

I continue to be dismayed by our obsession with headscarves and burkas ... it’s not our country or our culture and, not to sound unconcerned about womens rights, I do believe that much of this will EVOLVE over time and that our opposition may well be impeding rational accomodations ... Yes, Iraq was a secular state where women enjoyed more freedom that most in the region (and all sort of other modernities) ... and at least urban Afghanistan was rapidly trending toward modernity under the soviets ...

I’m so grateful that the residents of Sadr City are getting a break ... and maybe a good night’s sleep after 50 days of bombardment ... I wish them well.

thanks for the thanks—Susan

Report this
thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, May 11, 2008 at 5:10 am Link to this comment

For all the discussion about what Muqtada is or is not, a very good libertarian point should be remembered by all progressives: This is a concern for the people of Iraq, not us. What ever happened to respecting the sovereignty of nations? Dipping into other folks’ concerns is at the root of much of this, whether liberal or conservative. Corporate mythology has convinced a large segment of the population, that controlling resources that we do not own, is part of our strategic interests. This lie has never been exposed enough.

Report this

By cyrena, May 11, 2008 at 12:53 am Link to this comment


Thanks for the tips and the links for further reading. Much obliged.

On the other stuff that you’re looking to find out about Moqtada, there is a little bit of it in “Journey of the Jihadist”, (I can’t remember the author right now), and Nir Rosen has something as well, in his “Belly of the Green Bird”.

Because of what you mentioned about how fast things are moving, those may seem a bit ‘dated’ but I’d still reccommend them for those who know next to nothing.

I have no idea if al-Sadr has even considered things like structural economics though I don’t know that he’s at all in line with any freedom of religion. I also don’t put him in the same tank with Taliban-like excesses at all.

That said, we know that this invasion has unleashed a religious extremist element that did NOT exist under Saddam, since Iraq was in fact the most secular Arab nation in the ME under his regime, and enjoyed a standard of life that was arguably better than any other ME nation state. (well, since the overthrow of Iran’s Mossadeq back in the 1950’s..prior to that, Iran wasn’t a Theocracy either).

Thing is, even though these rumors of religious extremism having taken hold in Iraq since the US occupation, there is no real clear or verified information on where that is actually coming from. In other words, while the US would like to blame Moqtada, there’s nothing to verify that.

Report this

By cyrena, May 10, 2008 at 4:10 pm Link to this comment

Dyspeptic Teleologist,

Right on the money in exposing the incorrect representation or conflation of Sunni and al-Qaeda.

al-Qaeda does in fact reflect the mindset of the Wahhabists, and in my own work, it appears that they have always been the ‘boogeymen’ of Islam. Shiites remain terrified of them, and the West has done their best to make them appear as mainstream Islam, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Thanks for pointing that out.

Report this

By SusanSunflower, May 10, 2008 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I read a chapter of this book over at TomDispatch a week or so ago and look forward to reading it. Great review! I learned a great deal.

My first memory of Al-Sadr was when, as part of our “iraqi liberation” we closed his magazine and trashed his offices ... and we ordered his arrest for murder, but he was never arrested (Scarlet Pimpernel) .. and then of course Najaf ... the AUDACITY ... but before Najaf, Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s devastating dismissal of Al-Sadr as a badly educated rube with, irrc, bad teeth and a penchant for gutter slang (jealous much?)

The Highway of Death alone was enough to make me suspect that the Iraqi people would not be glad to see us ... uh, that and that the decasde of sanctions, and not one but two “bay of pigs type” abandonments.

I will read this book because I still have no idea what sort of Iraq Al-Sadr wants. I gather US Soldiers and the much of the Press has been told he’s another “new Hitler” and murmur about Taliban like excesses ... but I have seen nothing to indicate where he is on structural economics, distribution of wealth, or even freedom of religion, freedom of speech, education, health care ... God knows the Iraqi people need a devoted advocate and the poorest trust him.

Things are moving fast. There’s a 4 day ceasefire negotiated between Al-Sadr and Maliki (that the US Military said they knew nothing about) and Sadr denounced Ali Sistani for his silence=complicity wrt US Airstrikes on Sadr City in support of Maliki ... Stay tuned.

There’s an interesting article over on Z-net about the surge that has some “policial evolution” backgrounder info on Al-Sadr in the middle—from a book in progress by Anchar and Chomsky ...

The Iraq “Surge” By Gilbert Achcar

The fact that a decade of American efforts to bring down Saddam had failed completely, utterly, should have been a clue. Team Bush tried to install a old-fashioned post-colonial rich old boy’s club government ... what fools… like Vietnam, it was doomed before the first boots hit the ground.

Report this
thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, May 10, 2008 at 10:33 am Link to this comment

I would like to see and/or hear a one hour interview with Senator Barack Obama by Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman.

Report this

By cyrena, May 10, 2008 at 2:34 am Link to this comment

Beer Doctor,

I agree. AND…while I have no way to ‘prove’ it, I’d still be willing to put forth a guess that at least one of the now so-called main presidential candidates, Barack Obama, WOULD read this book.

Or, at least he would if he had time. He has before.

And, that’s at least ONE THING that I have to continue to ‘give’ Bill Clinton. He DID read this kind of information. Whether or not he ever really acted upon it involves a whole ‘nother conversation, but he has always been well-read.

The same can be said for Obama. So, if somebody puts the bug in his ear, that this should be on his reading list, I’m convinced that he would. If nothing else, SOMEONE (or maybe serveral someones) WOULD read it, and make sure that he’s briefed.

Now let me sort of justify that if I can, by reminding that the same things that Wheatcroft mentions here in the review, (but coming from Jacques Chirac), were ALSO put forth on numerous occasions, to the Dick Bush team. In other words, they had TONS of information and advice from multiple teams of academics and scholars, and all of the people who could tell them all that they needed to know, about the wisdom of launching this invasion and occupation, and exactly, (or very, very, very close to exact) what would happen. (I don’t know what the thought was on Moqtada). Still, there were lots of experts that advised them all about how they really DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING, about the place or the people or the customs, or the traditions, or the language, or the culture, or the politics, or the religion, or even the geographical demographics.

It goes without saying that the entire gangster regime just blew them all off, not unlike Tony Blair did here, even though HE should have known better, just by nature of the fact that he should have known at LEAST the history of the British occupation of Iraq, which was never as brutal.

But I said that to say that Obama would have been among those that WERE paying attention to these ‘details’ before blasting in there, which is of course why he was so overwhelmingly opposed to it. (above and beyond the other obvious reasons, including the fact that it was an illegal invasion and occupation because a UN resolution was never obtained or authorized, and it was bound to be a humanitarian disaster).

So, I said all of that to say that I’ve noticed that Obama DOES pay attention to these things, and he does read these types of books.

But you’re right, I don’t know of a single other candidate that has or would.

But then, HE does ‘get’ the need for education.

Report this
Purple Girl's avatar

By Purple Girl, May 9, 2008 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

As I watched the plane hit the 2nd tower- I turned to my firend and said- ‘This is No Accident’
When they announced we had invaded Afghanistan- Itruned to my husband and said ‘this will be a cluster F*ck’.
I knew Why we were attacked on 9/11. I grit my teeth when Bush proclaimed it was because of ‘Our Freedoms’, and have nearly taken out my TV everytime I’ve heard it since. Hagee et als claim it was do to the ‘Gays & Abortions’ nearly casued me to pull out my hair screaming, ‘they hate our way of life’ nearly sent me over the edge into utter madness- 7 yrs of mind numbing Propaganda and Lexapro have helped.But it has not changed my realization that we were attacked becasue of complicity with oppressive regimes by our gov’t and the Inc’s who use OUR Flag as camoflague. And we invaded to secure and seize Oil Rich lands.The glaring evidence that has been done in conjunciton with the Saudi’s is the Fact that the majority of the Highjackers came from their country and nothing was said or done about THEIR harboring (spawning) Terrorists.the saudi’s et al have used US as scapegoats to avoid being Recognized as their own peoples oppressors. Iraq is a land Grab and the Rhetoric being careless thrown around by Politicians is also nothing more than build up for antother land grab for their Foreign sponsors and Accomplices in Crimes against Humanity.
It did not take a man with military expereince in the Region, a PhD in Middle East History , Anthroplogy or even an Einstein to figure out This all goes back to when We first stepped foot in the Region Decades ago. Deadly ‘Warning Shots’ were shot across our ‘Bow’ in the ‘70’s, and We AmericaNs heeded the Warning and demanded we get OUT. The intentional disregard for that demand by this Democratic Society constitutes Treason, leading into War crimes and ultimately Crimes Against Humanity - for the War, the Ethnic cleansing and The Global food Crisis r/t oil Hoarding.

Report this

By P. T., May 9, 2008 at 10:05 am Link to this comment

That failure was likely should have been apparent by Britain’s bad experience in Iraq following World War I and from Ronald Reagan’s Lebanon misadventure.  Iraqis know the U.S. has no love for Arabs.  That is obvious from U.S. treatment of the Palestinians.  And the hope of having Iraq become pro-Zionist was absolutely ludicrous.

Report this
thebeerdoctor's avatar

By thebeerdoctor, May 9, 2008 at 10:02 am Link to this comment

Patrick Cockburn’s book should be required reading for the so-called main presidential candidates, but of course they will do no such thing. There is no doubt that Muqtada is one tough customer, considering the facts of his background, what else could he be? As long as the United States government refuses to negotiate with entities who do not share our so-called free market global vision, then what recourse is there? Oh, I am almost forgot, Mrs. Clinton said we would obliterate Iran.
Any country, group, or supposed entity, who does not embrace the US empirical vision is dubbed a terrorist that we refuse to talk to. The ironic part of this is, the US government is afraid of nearly everyone, even though it spends more money on weapons than the rest of the world combined. That is indeed an apt explanation for “a culture of death”. But probably the most frightening of all, there is someone, such as Senator John McCain, who could be put in charge of a situation that he knows next to nothing about. Joe Lieberman holding his hand will not help.

Report this

By Don Stivers, May 9, 2008 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

With all of the evidence that has been made public, our representatives in government continue to let G.W. Bush remain President of the United States. 

Compared to what the New York governor did and the results, the U.S. is in effect, letting Bush commit murder in the name of democracy with no ramifications.

And our press corp goes to dinners where jokes fly and the President laughs while people die in a far place as a result of the his (the President’s) actions.

Report this

By Dyspeptic Teleologist, May 9, 2008 at 6:37 am Link to this comment

Thanks for a good piece.  A minor point and a couple of minor-to-slightly less than minor ones.  First, the Arabic word for “redeemer” is “mahdi” not “mahd” (this is probably a type-o unintended by the author, so apologies if this seems pedantic).  Second, twelver Shi’ism is only one of several streams of Shi’ism, albeit the most numerically significant, representing most Arab and Iranian Shi’a.  Finally, I would question the description of al-Qaeda as Sunni.  A much more accurate term would be (as the Saudis put it) “muwahiddun” (roughly, “unitarians,” those who take Islam’s notion of the singularity and one-ness of God to its furthest, most austere conclusions).  The term popular in the West is “Wahhabists,” after the founder of the sect, Muhammad ibn abd-al Wahhab, an eighteenth-century Arabian preacher. Wahhab’s preaching was considered anathema both to his Sunni Arabian compatriots (among others, his father and brother thought his version of Islam was beyond the pale, according to Khaled abu el-Fadl) and to the Sunni Ottoman authorities, who eventually executed him. 

Although Wheatcroft would certainly not intentionally trade in stereotypes, this conflation between Sunni and al-Qaeda is drawn from facile commentary in the West, which for one reason or another has forgotten or doesn’t often discuss the contingency between empire, geopolitics/political economy, and Middle Eastern politics.  Up until the 1970s, most Sunnis would have regarded Wahhabism as pretty exotic and certainly too austere to be reconciled with actually-lived human reality.  The intersection of the OPEC crisis, which made Saudi Arabia a world economic power; the heating up of the cold war in Afghanistan, in which Wahhabist elements were most prominent (the Americans wanted the most zealous anti-communists to fight the Soviets—Mahmood Mamdani, “Good Muslims, Bad Muslims”); and the increasing role of Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against successive threats, such as communist regimes/insurgencies (South Yemen, Oman), Islamic radicalism (Iran, internal movements in various Arab countries), and, most recently, “rogue states” (Iraq, Syria) and anti-Israel elements (Hamas, Hezbollah) ... all of these made Saudi Arabia into a “moderate” (i.e., pro-American) state. This, along with its wealth, enabled a transnationalization of its image and interpretation of Islam, also made it appear to represent a mainstream Islam.

Report this

By Jane, May 9, 2008 at 6:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

re: the UN has just suspended delivery all aids to Minyamar (or is it Burma?) What difference does it make, a name is just a name. A fascist is just a fascist. Mr Michael Ledeen, the respected journalist of the National Review, say hello to your fellow fascists in Burma.

Report this
Right Top, Site wide - Care2
Right 3, Site wide - Exposure Dynamics
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide