May 29, 2008


The Wild Card: A Review of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (Dexter Filkins, New Republic)

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.

Westerners certainly make the same mistake with both Nasrallah and Mookie, imagining that it matters what we think of them rather than what their fellow Shi'a think of them.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 29, 2008 7:00 AM

Nasrallah lives in a bunker (or a series of them), and won't be able to show his face even if he becomes "ruler" of a sovereign South Lebanon.

Mookie is in Iran, unable (unwilling) to return. He can emulate Nasrallah, to be sure, but who wants to spend the rest of his life in a bunker, wondering when the JDAM will come crashing through the vent? Or when the fire will start, deep underground?

Nasrallah probably has a tighter hold on his 'people' than Mookie does - but they don't have the alternative of free elections and a new destiny ahead of them, as the Shi'a in Iraq do. The Shi'a in Lebanon can be "free" in the South, but they will not be sovereign. The power will be in Damascus and Tehran. Nasrallah may well envy Mookie.

Posted by: ratbert at May 29, 2008 6:04 PM

Mookie does.

Posted by: oj at May 29, 2008 8:18 PM

Mookie stays in the streets...of Qum.

Posted by: Peter at May 30, 2008 1:31 AM

"Mahdi Army"--(gasping, desk-pounding laughter)

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 30, 2008 6:28 AM

The only reason the "Mahdi Army" gets any press is because it has killed Americans. Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and all the rest get their pictures in the paper because they kill Jews (and Americans). The media puffs them up because they fight against the US (and Israeli) military.

Otherwise, these guys would be as forgotten as Mugabe's goons, the Burmese Army, the Filipino Islamonuts living in the jungle, and the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Posted by: ratbert at May 30, 2008 9:49 AM

Bingo! Mugabe has run a country for a fair long while. Dismissing him was a classic western navel gazing mistake.

Posted by: oj at May 30, 2008 11:37 AM

In the beginning, Mugabe was viewed positively. Perhaps he was always a psychopath, but as I recall, things in Zimbabwe didn't totally collapse until about 1992-4. Then came the forced resettlement, the farm confiscations, the inflation, the thugocracy and the rest.

And, while it is no point in his favor, Mugabe has not been an international terrorist. Nasrallah, Arafat, and most of the others have.

Posted by: ratbert at May 30, 2008 1:39 PM

Mugabe started as a terrorist, that's why he doesn't govern Rhodesia.

Posted by: oj at May 30, 2008 3:14 PM