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.
Cockburn (Middle East correspondent, the Independent; The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq) offers a compelling biography of Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant cleric who has been an influential opposition leader to the American presence in Iraq. Relying on his own extensive interviews (but not with Muqtada), Cockburn not only tells the story of Muqtada but places him in the greater context of Iraqi history and politics. There is considerable discussion about Iraq's internal political climate during Saddam Hussein's reign and how Muqtada's family held a leadership role in the Shia community. The political activity and popularity of the family led to the assassination of his father (in 1999) and two brothers by the Hussein regime. It was after his father's assassination that Muqtada assumed his own leadership role in the Shia community. Cockburn presents a complex individual interested in preserving the Iraqi and particularly the Shia communities and shows that Muqtada is not a one-dimensional militant cleric, as usually portrayed in the West, but a powerful individual who will figure prominently in efforts to stabilize Iraq. Recommended for large public and all academic libraries.--Michael LaMagna, Cabrini Col. Lib., Radnor, PA Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 07, 2008
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Excerpt from Muqtada by Patrick Cockburn
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