Patrick Cockburn is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (2008), an indispensible report from the front lines of the US invasion of Iraq by an experienced Irish Middle East correspondent. We include one comment this month on the ascension to electoral power of Muqtada al-Sadr and an interview Cockburn did with al-Sadr in 2013, to try to give readers some sense of the importance of this election in Iraq. As Cockburn put it,
The election this month, in which so many voters gave priority to social rather than security issues, may show that, as violence ebbs, Iraqi are becoming less traumatised.
We also included a 2004 article from The Guardian to give some impression of how al-Sadr was viewed just after the US invasion. -- blj
Election success for Muqtada al-Sadr shows Iraqi voters shaking off foreign intervention
Analysis: Nationalist populist has always rejected any external presence in his country, be it the UK, Iran or the US
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr visits his father's grave after parliamentary election results were announced, in Najaf Reuters
Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist populist Shia cleric, has once again defied predictions as the coalition he leads outperformed rival parties in the parliamentary election on 12 May. His supporters successfully campaigned for social and political reform and against a corrupt and dysfunctional political establishment.
It was the latest surprise in the career of a man who barely survived the murder of his father, the revered Shia religious leader Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, and his two brothers, on the orders of Saddam Hussein in 1999.
Four years later, after the US invasion of Iraq, he was in danger once again of being killed, this time by American forces who twice besieged him in the holy city of Najaf in 2004.
Mr Sadr will be very much the kingmaker – though he will have no official position – in the formation of a new Iraqi government.
His coalition, which includes the Iraqi Communist Party, independents and secularists as well as his religious followers, appealed strongly to Iraqis who feel that, with the war won against Isis, they need to rebuild their country.
The Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi hoped to win the election – though no party was ever likely to win an absolute majority – by appealing to voters as the leader who recaptured Mosul from Isis last year.
He followed this up with a largely bloodless reoccupation of Kirkuk, held by the Kurds since 2003, and the restoration of a large measure of government authority in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The political movement formed out of the largely Shia paramilitaries, the Hashd al-Shaabi, which came second in the polls, had, like Mr Abadi, hoped to win more votes through their role in the war against Isis.
But the drop in violence to a level not seen since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein means that Iraqis are focusing on the theft by the political elite of hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenues that should have been used to improve the supply of water, electricity, waste disposal as well medical care and education.
Mr Sadr has been frequently underestimated as a political leader since he first emerged from house arrest in Najaf at the time of the US invasion.
He was described by the western media as a ‘maverick’ or ‘firebrand cleric’, but his views were always more sophisticated and flexible than he was given credit for.
The origin of Mr Sadr’s influence was his family’s role as religious leaders and the martyrdom of many of them, beginning with the execution of Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr in 1980.
His father led a movement that appealed to the Shia poor of Baghdad and southern Iraq, combining religious revivalism with social and political radicalism. From the start, Sadrism had a strong element of Iraqi nationalism in opposition to all foreign interference in Iraq, be it American, British or Iranian.
In an interview with The Independent in Najaf in 2013 – the first he had given face to face to a Western journalist for 10 years – Mr Sadr spoke graphically of the ill effects of Iraq inviting in different foreign powers to try to solve its problems.
He compared this to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse”,
Mr Sadr created the Shia paramilitary Mehdi Army to resist the Americans. He was later to stand this down during the Sunni-Shia sectarian mass killings of 2006-7, saying that it had been infiltrated by people not under his control.
He was denounced by the US as a pro-Iranian proxy, but he has made clear over the years that he opposes Iranian interference as well as that of other countries.
The Sadrist success in the election this month will be unwelcome in both Washington and Tehran.
The US had done everything it could to back Mr Abadi as a victorious war leader and a sort of Iraqi Winston Churchill – forgetting, perhaps, that Churchill lost the British general election in 1945.
Mr Sadr’s influence over an incoming government in Baghdad puts in doubt the future of the 10,000 American troops and military contractors in Iraq, though a Sadrist spokesman said after the election that US training and the weapons procurement from the US could continue.
Iran, for its part, has close links with the Hashd al-Shaabi and the group led by the former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and will be wary of Mr Sadr’s Iraqi nationalism.
Mr Maliki stays in power until the formation of a new government, which he may lead in an alliance with the Sadrists.
Mr Sadr is perceptive about political developments in Iraq. When I interviewed him five years ago he warned against Sunni-Shia sectarianism and foreign interference. He said: “The Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate and it will be easy for foreign powers to control the country.” This prediction was to be fulfilled six months later when Isis took Mosul and the Iraqi army broke up.
Mr Sadr said that sectarianism was spreading at street level and “if it spreads among the people, it will be difficult to fight”.
Iraqi politics is still largely based on sectarian or ethnic identity – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – but the religious parties that were in the ascendant after 2003 have discredited themselves. The majority Shia community is also more confident, after its military victories last year, that it is firmly in control and is not going to be dispossessed from power.
Mr Sadr said that the problem was that the Iraqi psychology had been shaped by a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war, first Gulf war, the second Gulf war, then the occupation war”.
The election this month, in which so many voters gave priority to social rather than security issues, may show that, as violence ebbs, Iraqi are becoming less traumatised.
An Interview With Muqtada al-Sadr
by PATRICK COCKBURN
The future of Iraq as a united and independent country is endangered by sectarian Shia-Sunni hostility says Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia religious leader whose Mehdi Army militia fought the US and British armies and who remains a powerful figure in Iraqi politics. He warns of the danger that “the Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate, and it will be easy for external powers to control the country”.
In an interview in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south-west of Baghdad – the first interview Mr Sadr has given face-to-face with a Western journalist for almost 10 years – he expressed pessimism about the immediate prospects for Iraq, saying: “The near future is dark.”
Mr Sadr said he is most worried about sectarianism affecting Iraqis at street level, believing that “if it spreads among the people it will be difficult to fight”. He says he believes that standing against sectarianism has made him lose support among his followers.
Mr Sadr’s moderate stance is key at a moment when sectarian strife has been increasing in Iraq – some 200 Shia were killed in the past week alone. For 40 years, Mr Sadr and religious leaders from his family have set the political trend within the Shia community in Iraq. Their long-term resistance to Saddam Hussein and, later, their opposition to the US-led occupation had a crucial impact.
Mr Sadr has remained a leading influence in Iraq after an extraordinary career in which he has often come close to being killed. Several times, it appeared that the political movement he leads, the Sadrist Movement, would be crushed.
He was 25 in 1999 when his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shia leader, and Mr Sadr’s two brothers were assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s gunmen in Najaf. He just survived sharing a similar fate, remaining under house arrest in Najaf until 2003 when Saddam was overthrown by the US invasion. He and his followers became the most powerful force in many Shia parts of Iraq as enemies of the old regime, but also opposing the occupation. In 2004, his Mehdi Army fought two savage battles against American troops in Najaf, and in Basra it engaged in a prolonged guerrilla war against the British Army which saw the Mehdi Army take control of the city.
The Mehdi Army was seen by the Sunni community as playing a central role in the sectarian murder campaign that reached its height in 2006-7. Mr Sadr says that “people infiltrated the Mehdi Army and carried out these killings”, adding that if his militiamen were involved in the murder of Sunnis he would be the first person to denounce them.
For much of this period, Mr Sadr did not appear to have had full control of forces acting in his name; ultimately he stood them down. At the same time, the Mehdi Army was being driven from its old strongholds in Basra and Sadr City by the US Army and resurgent Iraqi government armed forces. Asked about the status of the Mehdi Army today, Mr Sadr says: “It is still there but it is frozen because the occupation is apparently over. If it comes back, they [the Mehdi Army militiamen] will come back.”
In the past five years, Mr Sadr has rebuilt his movement as one of the main players in Iraqi politics with a programme that is a mixture of Shia religion, populism and Iraqi nationalism. After a strong showing in the general election in 2010, it became part of the present government, with six seats in the cabinet. But Mr Sadr is highly critical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s performance during his two terms in office, accusing his administration of being sectarian, corrupt and incompetent.
Speaking of Mr Maliki, with whom his relations are increasingly sour, Mr Sadr said that “maybe he is not the only person responsible for what is happening in Iraq, but he is the person in charge”. Asked if he expected Mr Maliki to continue as Prime Minister, he said: “I expect he is going to run for a third term, but I don’t want him to.”
Mr Sadr said he and other Iraqi leaders had tried to replace him in the past, but Mr Maliki had survived in office because of his support from foreign powers, notably the US and Iran. “What is really surprising is that America and Iran should decide on one person,” he said. “Maliki is strong because he is supported by the United States, Britain and Iran.”
Mr Sadr is particularly critical of the government’s handling of the Sunni minority, which lost power in 2003, implying they had been marginalised and their demands ignored. He thinks that the Iraqi government lost its chance to conciliate Sunni protesters in Iraq who started demonstrating last December, asking for greater civil rights and an end to persecution.
“My personal opinion is that it is too late now to address these [Sunni] demands when the government, which is seen as a Shia government by the demonstrators, failed to meet their demands,” he said. Asked how ordinary Shia, who make up the great majority of the thousand people a month being killed by al-Qa’ida bombs, should react, Mr Sadr said: “They should understand that they are not being attacked by Sunnis. They are being attacked by extremists, they are being attacked by external powers.”
As Mr Sadr sees it, the problem in Iraq is that Iraqis as a whole are traumatised by almost half a century in which there has been a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war, first Gulf war, then second Gulf war, then the occupation war, then the resistance – this would lead to a change in the psychology of Iraqis”. He explained that Iraqis make the mistake of trying to solve one problem by creating a worse one, such as getting the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein but then having the problem of the US occupation. He compared Iraqis to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse again”.
Asked about the best way for Iraqis to deal with the mouse, Mr Sadr said: “By using neither the cat nor the dog, but instead national unity, rejection of sectarianism, open-mindedness, having open ideas, rejection of extremism.”
A main theme of Mr Sadr’s approach is to bolster Iraq as an independent nation state, able to make decisions in its own interests. Hence his abiding hostility to the American and British occupation, holding this responsible for many of Iraq’s present ills. To this day, neither he nor anybody from his movement will meet American or British officials. But he is equally hostile to intervention by Iran in Iraqi affairs saying: “We refuse all kinds of interventions from external forces, whether such an intervention was in the interests of Iraqis or against their interests. The destiny of Iraqis should be decided by Iraqis themselves.”
This is a change of stance for a man who was once demonised by the US and Britain as a pawn of Iran. The strength of the Sadrist movement under Mr Sadr and his father – and its ability to withstand powerful enemies and shattering defeats – owes much to the fact it that it blends Shia revivalism with social activism and Iraqi nationalism.
Why are Iraqi government members so ineffective and corrupt? Mr Sadr believes that “they compete to take a share of the cake, rather than competing to serve their people”
Asked why the Kurdistan Regional Government had been more successful in terms of security and economic development than the rest of Iraq, Mr Sadr thought there was less stealing and corruption among the Kurds and maybe because “they love their ethnicity and their region”. If the government tried to marginalise them, they might ask for independence: “Mr Massoud Barzani [the KRG President] told me that ‘if Maliki pushes on me harder, we are going to ask for independence’.”
At the end of the interview Mr Sadr asked me if I was not frightened of interviewing him and would not this make the British Government consider me a terrorist? Secondly, he wondered if the British Government still considered that it had liberated the Iraqi people, and wondered if he should sue the Government on behalf of the casualties caused by the British occupation.
US faces Iraqi revolt
· Warrant issued for Shia cleric
· US seals off Falluja
· Worst unrest since Saddam fell
Mark Oliver, George Wrightand agencies
An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for the Shia leader blamed for violent demonstrations against coalition control, it was announced today.
Coalition officials said dissident cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have attacked Iraqi and US forces in several cities over the last 36 hours, was wanted in connection with the murder of rival Shia leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei.
Mr Khoei, a respected moderate cleric who returned to Iraq from Britain immediately after the war, was stabbed to death in Najaf last April.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said the warrant for Mr Sadr's arrest was issued several months ago by an Iraqi investigating judge. He insisted the timing of the announcement - on the same day that Mr Sadr's followers continued to confront the authorities and were branded outlaws by coalition head Paul Bremer - was coincidental.
Taking the Shia leader into custody could prove problematic, however. Since violence broke out between his supporters and the authorities yesterday, he is understood to have been staying in a mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, surrounded by loyal militiamen.
Asked when and how the US-led coalition planned to arrest Mr Sadr, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy director for coalition operations in Iraq, said "a lot depended on whether he decided to come peacefully".
The development came as US forces confronted a second day of revolt by Mr Sadr's followers. Two US Apache gunships were seen striking targets within al-Shula, a Shia neighbourhood of north-west Baghdad, and at least seven Iraqis were killed in the area, reports said. An American vehicle was ablaze.
It was thought to be the first time since major combat ended that Apaches mounted strikes on the capital. The attacks came 24 hours after some of the worst unrest since Saddam Hussein fell.
Mr Sadr, 30, has been blamed for the violence today and the riots yesterday in four Iraqi cities including another area of Baghdad.
Yesterday there were riots in four cities that left more than 50 Iraqis and nine coalition troops dead. Twelve US soldiers and one Salvadoran soldier have been killed in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, 32 miles west of the capital, the Sunni Muslim city of Falluja was sealed off as part of an operation against insurgents there. A US marine was killed in the province but officials would not immediately give details about the death.
Residents in Falluja reported heavy firing overnight and a hospital doctor said five Iraqis had been killed and three wounded.
Paul Bremer, the head of the coalition provisional authority, said Mr Sadr's group had "placed itself outside the legal authorities".
The tension has been increasing since the March 28 closure of Mr Sadr's newspaper, on grounds it was inciting attacks. Then on Saturday one of his aides was arrested and yesterday's demonstrations turned violent. The aide, Mustapha Yacoubi, was arrested in connection with a murder investigation.
Of Mr Sadr, Mr Bremer said: "He is attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this ... We will reassert the law and order that the Iraqi people expect."
In a statement read out in a mosque in Kufa, near Najaf, where he is staging a sit-in with supporters, Mr Sadr said: "I'm accused by one of the leaders of evil, Bremer, of being an outlaw ... if that means breaking the law of the American tyranny and its filthy constitution, I'm proud of that and that is why I'm in revolt."
The prospect of Shia militancy compounding the problems of Sunni insurgency is a nightmare scenario for Washington.
However a senior US military official told Reuters that the violence was not a generalised Shia uprising, adding that he expected "moderate majority Shia to come out and speak against this level of extremism" in the coming days.
The British prime minister's spokesman also insisted the violence was the work of a "small minority" of the Shia community.
The spokesman for Tony Blair stressed that the violence would not derail plans to hand sovereignty back to the Iraqis at the end of June. "The Shia community have condemned the violence and the challenge to law and order," he said.
Mr Sadr's supporters, many wearing black shirts of an unauthorised militia, were out in force during riots in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriya, and Amara yesterday.
The fiercest battle yesterday took place in the streets of Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shia neighbourhood, where Shia militiamen fired from rooftops and behind buildings at US troops, killing seven Americans.
The US troops moved into Sadr City after militiamen took over five police stations there. By this morning, the militiamen had been forced out of the police stations, and US tanks were parked in the neighbourhood. Another 5,000 of Mr Sadr's supporters marched yesterday on a military base in Kufa, close to Najaf, and shooting broke out. The supporters allegedly opened fire on Spanish troops, sparking a battle that lasted several hours.
Today Falluja was being sealed off as part of a major operation codenamed "Vigilant Resolve", aimed at pacifying the city. Falluja is one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the insurgency against the American occupation.
The move against Falluja is part of the promised US response to last Wednesday's killings of four American contractors in the city. Insurgents dragged the men's charred bodies through the streets and hanged two of them from bridges. Supported by US armour, some 1,200 marines and two battalions of Iraqi security forces were poised to enter the city.