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The Wild Card

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

By Patrick Cockburn

(Scribner, 227 pp., $24)

To feel the power of Muqtada al-Sadr, the young Shiite cleric and tormentor of the Americans in Iraq, all you needed to do, in the years after the invasion, was go to the Mohsin Mosque in eastern Baghdad. There, spread in the street for a half a mile, as many as fifteen thousand young men would stand assembled, prayer mats in hand, waiting for the service to begin. The scene was safe: Mahdi Army gunmen searched the cars and the supplicants for bombs. There were no American soldiers in sight. And then, as the thousands fell to their knees, an imam would exit the mosque, climb onto a raised wooden platform, and signal the beginning of prayer. As he began, the crowd started to chant.

May God speed his appearance!
May God curse his enemies!
May God make his son triumphant!

The "his" in the first three chants referred to the Mahdi--the messiah of Shia Islam--and the last three lines established a momentous equivalence between this redeemer and Muqtada al-Sadr. But Muqtada never showed his face; he almost never does.

Muqtada al-Sadr stands for everything in Iraq that we do not understand. The exiles we imported to run the country following Saddam's fall are suave and well-dressed; Muqtada is glowering and elusive. The exiles parade before the cameras in the Green Zone; Muqtada stays in the streets, in the shadows, surfacing occasionally to give a wild sermon about the return of the hidden twelfth imam. The Americans proclaim Muqtada irrelevant; his face adorns the walls of every teashop in Shiite Iraq. The Americans attack; Muqtada disappears. The Americans offer a deal, and Muqtada responds: only after you leave.

Who is Muqtada al-Sadr? What does he want? And how many divisions does he have? That we know so little so late about someone so central to the fate of Iraq is an indictment of anyone associated with the American endeavor there. But it is also a measure of Iraq itself: of its complexity, its mutability, its true nature as an always-spinning kaleidoscope of alliances, deals, and double- crosses. Muqtada al-Sadr is not merely a mirror of our ignorance, he is also a window onto the unforgiving land where we have seen so many of our fortunes disappear.

Patrick Cockburn has tried to get at the mystery of Muqtada al-Sadr. I think he misses in a few places, but it is hard to imagine anyone, I mean any other Westerner, getting a clearer take on this slippery and moody character. In Muqtada al-Sadr, Cockburn thinks he has found not the crazy-eyed zealot often portrayed in the Western press, but a shrewd and nimble guerrilla prince who gives authentic voice to the downtrodden Shiite multitudes--and sometimes, unfortunately, goes too far. The history of Muqtada's rise that Cockburn recounts here is remarkable, a chronicle of a vast historical current unfolding before a group of bumbling foreign occupiers in a land they do not comprehend. Muqtada did not, as Cockburn rightly remarks, become the leader of Iraq's only authentic populist movement by being an uneducated ruffian. At every turn his enemies have thought him smaller than he is.

Still, the Muqtada al-Sadr whom I came to know in Iraq was a darker figure than the man Cockburn portrays: more malevolent, more reckless. The Mahdi Army did not conquer so much of Baghdad and Basra by its wiles alone. And I cannot so quickly dismiss, as Cockburn appears to do, the stabilizing influences that the American military brings to that wrenching country. By his actions and his manners, Muqtada seems to see himself as a junior version of that other charismatic Shiite leader who so deftly hops between the worlds of politics and violence, Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Sheikh Nasrallah, with his unassailable army, his stranglehold on an elected government, his disregard of the frontiers of the state he inhabits--now there is a Middle Eastern leader to emulate! For Muqtada, on some days, the future must seem very close indeed.

I saw Muqtada only once, and only for a moment. It was in August 2004, during the siege of Najaf. His militiamen had commandeered the Shrine of Ali, the sacred tomb of the founder of the Shiite faith. American troops, with the blessing of the Iraqi government and the tacit approval of the mainstream Shiite religious leadership, were moving in to take them out. By late August, with the Americans only yards from the shrine itself, Najaf lay in ruins. The Americans were cutting down Mahdi Army fighters by the dozens. I had spent the afternoon at the shrine, then filled with besieged Shiite guerrillas whom Muqtada had been exhorting to "defend" from American "attack." Of course the truth was more complicated. Muqtada's men had seized the shrine some months before, in an attempt to upstage his Shiite rivals; and the Americans, though pulverizing everything around it, were making a great effort not to hit the shrine itself.

That night a deal was struck. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite leader, had returned from a trip to London ostensibly for medical reasons, though his absence had the predictable effect of allowing the Americans to crush the Mahdi Army. Sistani, by all accounts, disliked Muqtada, but the time had come to save the shrine. At around 10 p.m., a press conference was called at the home of one of the ayatollahs. I arrived late, just as it was starting, and inside the courtyard I could see the Shiite leaders assembled on the front porch. As I stepped toward the house, out of the corner of my eye I saw him. Muqtada al-Sadr, with an aide on each arm, was scuttling out a side door. Then he was gone.

That fleeting glimpse spoke volumes about Muqtada and his relationship with the rest of Iraq's Shiite elders. Muqtada's men had seized the shrine on his orders--indeed, in April 2004 his militiamen had briefly captured provincial capitals across southern Iraq. Najaf had been destroyed. Hundreds of his fighters, mostly illiterate young men from the slums of eastern Baghdad, were dead. And there was the man who started it all, shuffling out a side door. The grown-ups had come to clean up his mess. And yet, for all that, the Shiite elders did not know what to do with him. He was too powerful, too popular. In Muqtada, the lofty clerics saw their own weakness. The deal allowed him and the bedraggled survivors of his militia to go home.

That has been the story of Muqtada al-Sadr since he emerged in early 2003. He has been underestimated, scoffed at, laughed at. And, once recognized, his enemies have backed away. Paul Bremer, when he was in charge of the American occupation, discounted him, denounced him, vowed to arrest him, then backed off. After the siege of Najaf, the Iraqi cabinet debated killing Muqtada, and even (as one senior Iraqi official told me) drafted his obituary. And then, concluding that he would be more trouble dead than alive, the Iraqi leaders changed their minds. It keeps happening: earlier this year Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent his troops into Basra, and Muqtada's men were waiting for them. It is about time, in sum, that people stop underestimating Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement. Yet neither should he be mistaken for something greater than what he really is. It's not for nothing that Muqtada has spent much of the past year cooling his heels in Iran.

Wherever you drive in eastern Baghdad or southern Iraq, you will see enormous posters showing Muqtada and the turbaned, white-bearded faces of two much older men: Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. The first is Muqtada's father-in-law, the second is his father. Like a young sovereign uneasy about his fledgling reign, Muqtada uses the banners to remind his followers of his connection to the men whose greatness is not questioned. And that is the crucial thing about Muqtada: his power stems less from who he is than where he comes from. He is, more than anything, a symbol--the face--of a movement that was remaking Iraq long before the Americans arrived.

The Sadrist movement was started by Muqtada's father-in-law, Mohammed Baqir, and brought to fruition by his father, Mohammed Sadiq. The Sadrs espoused a sort of Shia populism--Islamist politics with a grassroots appeal. The movement was born of the political and economic impoverishment of Iraq's Shiite majority, which--under Saddam, the British, and the Ottomans--had been excluded from the centers of power by Iraq's overweening Sunni minority. At the same time, the Sadrs gave vent to the frustration harbored by many Iraqi Shiites for their mainstream religious leaders, who, even after the genocidal furies of Saddam Hussein, rejected the Iranian political model known as vilayat al-faqih, under which the clerics reign supreme. Baqir and Sadiq were enormously courageous men, and they succeeded in awakening the political consciousness of Iraq's Shiites. Both of them were executed by Saddam. The great value of Cockburn's book is that it places Muqtada in this historical context, thereby demonstrating that he was not some Johnny-come-lately demagogue who surfaced when the Americans arrived, but the authentic inheritor of an indigenous movement that is transforming Iraq. To read Cockburn's book is to realize why ignoring Muqtada--or even killing him--would probably never work.

When Saddam fell, Muqtada moved rapidly to resuscitate his father's organization. At the time, he might have seemed an implausible candidate for the job. Only twenty-nine, he had had to abandon his studies four years earlier when his father and two brothers were murdered. I should confess here that I was not among those, like Cockburn, who sensed Muqtada's power early on. Cockburn writes that "by the summer of 2003 some ninety percent of the mosques in Sadr City were under Sadrist control." Of course, until April 2003, Sadr City was not known as Sadr City at all-- it was called Saddam City. It was only after the regime fell that it was renamed for Muqtada's father. In the Western press, Sadr City is often referred to as a "neighborhood" or an "enclave,'' but in fact its population includes as much as one-third of Baghdad--more than two million people. That is quite a power base.

Muqtada's ascension was enabled, in part, by the suspicions many Iraqi Shiites harbored regarding the leaders who returned from exile in Iran and London. Principal among those repatriated power-seekers were the brothers Hakim--Mohammed Baqir and Abdul Aziz--of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI, as it was known then, was an Iranian-backed Shiite party that deployed a large militia known as the Badr Brigade. The Hakims' zeal for the Shia faith was so overriding that they and their soldiers in the Badr Brigade had fought for the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war. The Iraqis did not forget that--nor did they forget that when Saddam unleashed his counterattack on the Shiite south following the first Gulf war, killing at least 150,000 people, the Hakims and the Badr Brigade stayed in Iran. It is no small irony that SCIRI eventually came to enjoy the support not only of Iran but also of the United States; since 2005, the party has been one of the main coalition partners in the Iraqi government. "It was bizarre,'' Cockburn writes, "that President George W. Bush was to claim repeatedly over the next four years that Muqtada and the [Mahdi] Army were Iranian pawns when SCIRI and Badr, by now allied with the United States, were demonstrably Iranian creations."

It did not take long for Muqtada al-Sadr to reveal his darker side. On April 10, only a day after Saddam's fall, Majid al-Khoei, a pro-American cleric and the son of a grand ayatollah, was stabbed to death by a mob of Muqtada's supporters in Najaf. Muqtada's complicity has never been precisely established. It appears that he allowed Khoei to die on his doorstep. Khoei's death would certainly have been convenient for him: Khoei was a powerful rival and, like Ayatollah al-Sistani, a proponent of the "quietist" school of Shia Islam. As the story goes, Khoei was attacked by a mob of Muqtada supporters after he entered the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. Stabbed and bleeding, Khoei stumbled to the door of Muqtada's nearby house and pleaded for help. According to Cockburn, who relies on the eyewitness accounts, Muqtada sent a note outside saying, "Don't let them sit by my door." Khoei died shortly after that.

The murder of Khoei was an early turning point in the American occupation. Khoei could have been an important stabilizing influence on Shiite Iraq, and Muqtada's complicity in his murder--and the failure of the Americans to do anything about it--set a precedent for the months to come. Cockburn's assessment of Muqtada's role strikes me as too generous. Raad Juhi, an Iraqi judge who investigated the killing, took sworn testimony from eyewitnesses who declared that they heard Muqtada give the order for Khoei to be killed. On that basis, Juhi issued a warrant for Muqtada's arrest. (The warrant has never been executed.) Cockburn mentions Juhi only once, dismissing him under the "pretense that there was an independent Iraqi judiciary at the time." But anyone who ever met him will vouch for the fact that Juhi was a fearless and independent jurist. Having served as a judge under Saddam, he faced down the deposed dictator at his arraignment in 2004.

The Khoei assassination raises the question: can Muqtada ever be controlled? Or is he at heart just a wild and ambitious thug? The evidence points in both directions. In the summer of 2003, there were lengthy discussions between Muqtada's camp and members of the Iraq Governing Council, the advisory board set up by Bremer. Publicly, Muqtada denounced the American occupation; in private, Iraqi officials told me, he would have liked to have been offered a spot. An offer was never made. Had an opportunity been lost? Cockburn does not explore these discussions, but he does suggest, at the end of his book, that Muqtada could have been brought into the fold. "One of the gravest errors in Iraq by the United States was to try to marginalize Muqtada and his movement,'' he writes. "Had he been part of the political process from the beginning, the chances of creating a peaceful, prosperous Iraq would have been greater."

Maybe, but I doubt it. There is no question that Muqtada is a highly intelligent man--more intelligent than he is often portrayed as being--and that his movement contains powerful democratic currents. A number of political parties that looked to him for leadership took part in the parliamentary elections in 2005, and those parties did, for a time, join the Shiite-led coalition government of Nuri al-Maliki. Indeed, it was the Sadrists who engineered al-Maliki's ascension (and the blocking of the American favorite, Adel Abdul Mahdi, of SCIRI).

But I am not persuaded that Muqtada is some sort of robed Jeffersonian. Playing the political system is not the same thing as believing in politics. For all his flirtations with the democratic process, the most salient fact about Muqtada al-Sadr is that he has never been able to bring himself to retire the thousands of gunmen who answer his call. And whatever Muqtada's personal inclinations, the Mahdi Army has been one of the more brutal forces in Iraqi society.

I have my own memories of their brutality. In August 2004, as the battle for the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf was winding down, an Iraqi colleague and I were detained by a group of Mahdi Army militiamen and brought to one of its sharia courts, which had sprung up in the areas under the militia's control. For several exceedingly tense minutes, my colleague and I stood before a Sadrist cleric while the Mahdi Army militiamen who captured us waited for permission to shoot us. The cleric considered the request, asked us some questions--and then told us to get out of town. A few days later, after the fighting was over, my Iraqi colleague returned to one of the sharia courts and found the corpses of more than sixty people who had apparently been executed.

Likewise, the Mahdi Army played a central role in driving the civil war that overtook the country in 2005 and 2006. As Cockburn correctly points out, it was the failure of the Americans and the Iraqi government to stop the Sunni insurgency's murderous attacks on Shiite civilians that drove the population into the arms of Muqtada and the other militias. If the Americans could not protect the Shiite neighborhoods from suicide attacks, the Mahdi Army could.

At the same time, Muqtada's militiamen infiltrated the security services of the Shiite-led government that won the elections in 2005 (though not as extensively as did the Badr Brigade). It was after the triumph of the Shiite coalition that the death squads--official and unofficial--really got going. I am still haunted by the story that a Sunni father told me in Baghdad in late 2005 about how his son had been snatched from the family's home by a group of men identifying themselves as Iraqi police--and then, later, how the father received a ransom demand from men claiming to be members of the Mahdi Army. The family never got their son back. It is fair to say that Muqtada's militia succeeded in securing so many of Baghdad's neighborhoods--and the allegiance of the city's inhabitants--only because they were willing to do the dirty work of getting rid of the Sunnis. All the while, of course, Muqtada was proclaiming publicly that he was not sectarian.

This is a crucial point. All the excesses--the sharia courts, the death squads, the protection money that Mahdi gunmen regularly demand of Shiite merchants--are they perpetrated with Muqtada's approval? There is no question that parts of his movement have slipped from Muqtada's control, but just how much power has drained away is unclear. Cockburn raises the same question and, despite his best efforts, he is unable to answer it conclusively. "Muqtada was always a man riding a tiger, sometimes presiding, sometimes controlling the mass movement he nominally led. His words and actions were often far apart." That is correct.

And then, last summer, something remarkable happened: Muqtada appeared to retreat. In August, following a spate of heavy fighting with the Badr Brigade--the militia of one of the parties in the Iraqi government--Muqtada declared a six-month cease-fire. At around the same time, he appears to have left for Iran--from which, presumably, he has watched the American "surge" of combat forces in Baghdad. And this, finally, raises the most crucial question of all: what is Muqtada doing in Iran?

Muqtada al-Sadr's relationship with the Iranian regime has always been a complicated one, stemming in part from his father, who refused to acknowledge the regime's primacy over Iraq's Shia. (He also did not care much for Iraq's Iranian-born grand ayatollahs, Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei or Ali al-Sistani.) Sadiq was, like his son is now, an Iraqi nationalist. For its part, the Iranian regime has consistently had two objectives in Iraq: to keep the state weak and to bog the Americans down. To this end, the Iranians have provided support for Muqtada, even if the details of that support remain fuzzy. It is almost certainly true that the Iranians have given him money and guns. (My first personal recognition of this came in 2004, as I walked through a makeshift graveyard in Najaf, where I found a handful of graves marked with the names and Tehran addresses of Iranian volunteers killed in the battle.)

And yet the Iranians have not hesitated to rein Muqtada in when his activities have conflicted with their interests. Last summer, after the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, it was the Iranians who brokered a peace, a former American official who was in Iraq at the time told me. Muqtada declared a cease-fire, and in October he reached a formal agreement with the head of SCIRI (now known as the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council). The deal was announced in Tehran; and it appears that Muqtada took up residence there around the same time. The assumption, the former American official told me, was that the Iranians did not want Iraq's Shiite factions fighting openly in the streets.

Since then, almost everyone has benefited from Muqtada's Iranian interlude. He has been able to lie low while the Americans pressed their offensive in Baghdad. The Iranians have been able to keep him on a tighter leash. And it has even worked for the Americans: Muqtada's absence, and his cease-fire, have been one of the main factors behind the drop in American casualties.

This is not to say that Muqtada's interests and the Iranian regime's are identical--they are not. In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Muqtada declared, with remarkable frankness, that he had met with Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, and told him he did not like what Iran was doing in Iraq. "I told him that we share the same ideology," Muqtada said of Khamenei, "but that politically and militarily, I would not be an extension of Iran, and that there were negative things that Iran was doing in Iraq."

Which does not mean that Khamenei was paying attention. Even as the Iranians restrained Iraq's Shiite parties from fighting one another, they pressed their own offensive inside the country. Iranian-backed militias, some of them nominally tied to the Mahdi Army, have carried on the fight against American forces. The Americans refer to these Iranian-backed militias as "special groups, '' and said recently that they now account for three-quarters of the attacks that kill or wound American soldiers. When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, in April, that ''what Iranians are doing is killing American servicemen inside Iraq,'' he was referring to the "special groups."

This swirl of competing interests revealed itself during the Iraqi government's offensive in Basra in March. The Basra operation began as a limited mission, mainly to secure the port at Umm Qasr, which was under the control of several armed gangs. (Basra is being contested by as many as a half-dozen armed groups, of which the Mahdi Army is only one.) But for reasons that are still unclear, the Mahdi Army reacted fiercely to the operation, and the fighting spread. In the beginning, the Mahdi Army inflicted heavy losses on the Iraqi government's forces. The situation was so bad that Iraqi officials, presumably on instructions from Maliki, traveled to Iran to meet with Muqtada and ask for peace. Muqtada, sure enough, ordered his militia to stand down. Here we can only speculate, but it is a good bet that the Iranians, wanting to keep a lid on intra-Shiite fighting, helped broker a deal.

The fight in Basra may have changed some things for good. Maliki appears to have broken finally with Muqtada. After initial setbacks, the Iraqi army continued to push through Basra and eventually took control of the city. For the first time, Maliki publicly criticized the Iranians for meddling inside Iraq. The Iraqi prime minister recently dispatched a delegation to Tehran equipped with evidence of Iranian interference. There is reason to doubt Maliki's sincerity about confronting Iran, which, after all, could make far more trouble inside his country if it wished; but if Maliki has finally resolved to take on Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia, then we are indeed entering a new chapter in recent Iraqi history.

And what chapter is that? There are two ways to look at the Basra fighting. It is either the beginning of a newly confident Iraqi state, asserting itself against Muqtada's militia, or it is the beginning of something close to a Shiite civil war. Later this year, Iraq is scheduled to hold elections for provincial officials. Whoever wins, it is very likely that the losers will not accept the results. In places such as Basra, that could mean more Shiite-against-Shiite violence. And this time even the Iranians may not be able to stop it.

Dexter Filkins covered the war in Iraq for The New York Times from 2003 to 2006. His book, The Forever War, will be published by Knopf in the fall.