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Apr 24, 2014
Geoffrey Wheatcroft on ‘Muqtada’
Posted on May 9, 2008
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.
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?
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