March 27, 2008


Riding the tiger: a review of Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq By Patrick Cockburn (The Economist, 3/27/08)

Mr Cockburn argues that the Americans have consistently underestimated the Sadrist phenomenon, sometimes with fateful consequences. Paul Bremer, America's former viceroy in Baghdad, loathed Mr Sadr and managed to prompt a fierce Shia backlash by shutting down one of his newspapers. Mr Cockburn believes there is evidence the Americans later tried to kill him after the second of his two revolts against them in 2004.

Mr Sadr is certainly militantly anti-American. But if he were no more than that—merely the Shia equivalent of the Sunni insurgents of al-Qaeda—he would be a good deal less interesting. The book's plausible central thesis is that the young cleric has learnt from his mistakes. After twice confronting American power in futile rebellion, he decided to enter the very political process he had previously derided. His movement took part in the elections of 2005, winning the biggest block—32 seats—in the 275-member parliament and gaining control of a number of ministries (including health) which greatly enhanced its power of patronage.

Recent events are putting his thesis to the test. The young cleric remains an ambiguous figure: nominally part of the political process, yet frequently at odds with it. Mr Cockburn does not gloss over the brutalities of the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army. In February 2006 Sunni extremists blew up the famous golden dome of the Askariya shrine, a revered Shia holy place in Samarra. The Mahdi Army responded with savage reprisal attacks which served to push the country into civil war. The ceasefire Mr Sadr declared last summer helped subdue sectarian violence and earned him unwonted compliments from American generals. But now, as the Shia power struggle turns ugly, this ceasefire is in danger of collapse.

It was easy for the military to kid themselves into thinking they'd led the Surge.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2008 3:08 PM

If you are correct, then he needed to confront the American military to learn the path was not through there. Though the history of the late Saddam Hussein should have been a sufficient lesson.

Work with the Americans, but do not confront them. And certainly do not FARC yourself into becoming a mafioso.

Posted by: Mikey at March 27, 2008 5:20 PM