Just before the invasion of Iraq five years ago, the British prime minister met the French president. This episode has been described by Sir Stephen Wall, then of the Foreign Office, although not all Americans may have heard about it. Wall says that the meeting was quite cordial in the circumstances, with Tony Blair — the all-American hero of the moment — again voicing his ardent support for the war, and Jacques Chirac — whose very name was a curse to Americans at a time when congressmen were childishly ordering “freedom fries” with their lunch and Thomas Friedman was telling readers of The New York Times that France should be “voted off the island” — reiterating his opposition.

More specifically, Chirac said several things. For one, Blair and his friend George W. Bush knew nothing of the realities of war, but he did: 50 years ago, the young Jacques Chirac was a draftee serving in the French war in Algeria, a horrible conflict which Iraq has turned out to resemble all too closely. The Americans and British seemed to think they would be welcomed in Iraq with open arms, he said, but they shouldn’t count on it. He added very astutely that a mere Shiite majority was not to be confused with what we in the West call democracy. And as a final shot he asked whether Blair realized that, by invading Iraq, he might precipitate a civil war. When the British team left, the prime minister turned to his aides (no doubt with that boyish grin some of us have long since had enough of) and said, “Poor old Jacques, he just doesn’t get it!”

book cover

Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn

Scribner, 240 pages

Buy the book

As Wall adds, we know now just who got it. The disasters which have come about were not only foreseeable, they were foreseen — although not even the canny Chirac could have guessed quite what terrible form they would take. For that matter, as Patrick Cockburn more than once remarks in “Muqtada,” few Iraqis imagined the violence into which their country would be plunged, and even the Sadrists, whose leader is the subject of this highly informative book, “were surprised by the scale of support for them as Saddam’s regime fell apart.”

Nor did the bitterest critic of the war then imagine that, five years on, American aircraft would still be helping the Iraqi army to hold off attacks by the Mahdi Army. But then astonishment has been greater still on the American side as Moqtada al-Sadr, the astute, harsh, frightening scion of a line of martyred Shiite clerics, became one of the central players in this grim drama. He was first completely underestimated by the Americans, and of all the mistakes they have since made in Iraq, Cockburn writes, one of the gravest (which is saying something) was the attempt to marginalize him and his movement.

But then the war had been embarked on by politicians in Washington and London, encouraged by a claque of media cheerleaders, who began knowing very little about the country they were invading. Cockburn knows a great deal. One of the pre-eminent foreign correspondents of the age, he first visited Iraq 30 years ago and has written earlier books on Saddam Hussein and on the war, besides his reporting for the London Independent. Whether or not even he could have envisaged the Shiite revival, at least he understands its causes, and he offers a helping hand to those of our rulers who to this day can barely explain the difference between Sunni and Shiite (or who, like Sen. John McCain, have not quite grasped the fact that Iran is a Shiite country, which very much does not support the Sunnis of al-Qaida).

As Cockburn recapitulates the story, Islam was sundered by the early schism which followed the killing of Ali, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, in the year 661. In the first place those called the “Shi’at Ali” were no more than Muslims who had supported his claim to the caliphate, and it was only with the passage of time that the distinctive nature of Shia sharpened. A couple of centuries later its adherents became known as “Twelvers”: There had been 12 imams in succession up to al-Mahd, who disappeared at Samarra, but Shiites held that he, the Twelfth Imam, would one day return to purify the world. This may seem quaint to sophisticated Westerners, but that belief is scarcely more esoteric than the belief of frum Jews that the Almighty of ineffable name will one day send the moshiach to redeem his people, or of Christians that, as the Nicene Creed says, he “shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.”

While there was no precise theological difference between Shiite and Sunni to compare, let’s say, with the doctrine of transubstantiation which divides Roman Catholics from Protestants, the memory of Ali’s piety and virtue would come to be contrasted with the wealth and power of the Ummayad dynasty in Baghdad. And so Shia gradually became “the faith of the dispossessed and opponents of the powers-that-be,” much like Catholicism in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy. Later still this faith acquired a greater importance when Iran was forcibly converted to Shia by the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, and the tribes of southern Iraq converted in the 18th. The religious affinity between Iran and southern Iraq is now of the highest significance, even more so thanks to the accident of religious-cum-geological history which has left the Shiites sitting on top of a very large part of the world’s oil supplies.

The story was further complicated by the rise of an independent Shiite clergy, or ulema: The crucial fact that this ulema was separate from the state made Shia a much more potent alternative force to the existing regimes. That was so first under the Ottoman empire and then, after the Great War, when the modern entity of Iraq was created by the British — “in a fit of absence of mind,” if ever that phrase applied — with a one-fifth Sunni minority set in power over a Shiite majority. Such precarious minority rule persisted under the Hashemite monarchy; then when the last king was overthrown in 1958; when the secular Arab Socialist Baath Party took power in 1968 (those were the days when, as an old Middle East hand said to me sardonically not long ago, “we thought the Baathists were the progressive modernizers”); and when Saddam Hussein established his personal dictatorship in 1979. 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.

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