Four years ago last week, the subcommander of an armed faction in Iraq appeared in a grainy video — shot somewhere in Baghdad and distributed to Western journalists — and vowed to kill the leader of a rival group. Today that subcommander is alive but forgotten, and his rival, Muqtada al-Sadr, is one of the most powerful figures in the country. The forgotten subcommander, of course, is Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the three-star whose command of Coalition forces in Iraq lasted a scant two months after he issued the kill order on Sadr. The contrast between Sadr’s massive public rallies and Sanchez’s furtive low-fi video should have given a clue as to how high young Sadr would rise.
He is, without question, the greatest threat to American success in Iraq. The dimensions of the forces he commands in southern Iraq are unknown, precisely because his loyalists are so deeply entrenched that they are sometimes indistinguishable from the civilian population. In this urgent context, Patrick Cockburn’s new book is not just timely but absolutely necessary reading. It is the best account of both Muqtada himself and of the Sadrite clerical dynasty that produced him.
Too many Iraq observers were bewitched by the Sadr cliche — that he is a “firebrand cleric,” an angry and impulsive upstart, a blowhard who commands nothing but a gang of radical Shiite ne’er-do-wells. Cockburn’s book (his second of this war, after the excellent and overlooked The Occupation) draws on years of interviews with Iraqi Shia in Iraq and in pre-war exile. (One of those clerics underestimated Sadr’s influence, snubbed him, and was hacked apart by Sadr’s followers.) Cockburn suggests that Sadr’s support is rich and deep, due in part to his remarkable dissident pedigree. Sadr’s uncle and father were both effective rebels against Saddam, and Muqtada himself has been canny though not inerrant in his tactical engagement of U.S. and Iraqi government forces. Sadr’s precise power remains unmeasured, and it’s tough to tell whether his charismatic leadership can be routinized and turned into conventional political power, in the form of a high-level position in Baghdad. But his power is already real and unruly. Cockburn’s book should be read by anyone who wants to know what to do about it.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com