On 7 April 2003, Iraqi guerrillas in Amara, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, threw Ba’ath Party officials out of their offices and seized control of the city—the first, and only, act of indigenous rebellion in that region during the usuk invasion of Iraq. The occupying forces soon obliged the guerrillas to turn the city over to them, under threat of bombardment. The man who handed the British the keys to the city was Abdel Karim Mahmoud al-Mohammedawi, a veteran of struggle against the Ba’ath regime who had spent seven years in Abu Ghraib, and many more fighting the Iraqi Army in the marshlands of southern Iraq. Known as Abu Hatem—‘father of justice’—he commanded much respect locally, and securing his participation in the Iraqi Governing Council in the summer of 2003 was something of a coup for the Occupation. But by mid-2004, he had resigned from the igc in protest at the us pursuit of a thirty-one-year-old cleric from Najaf, whose anti-Occupation, nationalist stance had attracted massive popular support. The shift in Abu Hatem’s position not only demonstrates the growing unpopularity of the Occupation, even among those initially willing to work with it; it is also indicative of the surprisingly central role played in the fortunes of post-Saddam Iraq by Muqtada al-Sadr.

The latest book by Patrick Cockburn, who has reported from Iraq since the 1970s and has long been one of the most astute commentators on the country, provides a measured portrait of this pivotal, yet enigmatic figure—countering journalistic clichés of the ‘firebrand cleric’ by stressing Muqtada’s caution and capacity for strategic calculation. He provides a fluent, largely chronological narrative, the first half focusing on the political traditions to which Muqtada is heir, before turning to a relatively detailed évènementiel account of the period since the fall of Saddam, up to the beginning of 2008. Indeed, more than a biography, Cockburn has produced an account of the deeper lineages of Shia Islamist politics, and of the social forces that sustain present-day Sadrism. The resurgence of the former is among the least well understood of the wider dynamics unleashed by the 2003 invasion, making Cockburn’s contribution all the more welcome; the sociological dimensions of his account, meanwhile, highlight forces that are sure to have a defining influence on Iraq’s future.

Born in 1973, Muqtada al-Sadr comes from a line of martyrs: his father’s cousin, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, was assassinated by the Ba’ath regime in 1980, while his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, met the same fate in 1999, along with two of Muqtada’s brothers. While Muhammad Baqir—Sadr I—had been the leading intellectual of the Shia political awakening in Iraq after 1958, Muhammad Sadiq—Sadr II—had, in the limited oxygen of the 1990s, laid the organizational bases for the movement that would burst into life in 2003. Sadr I progressed up the ladder of the Shia clergy, the marji’iya, at a time when it was coming under sustained threat from the advance of secularism, and from the appeal of pan-Arabist sentiment, linked to the modernizing projects of early Ba’athism. After the 1958 Revolution, concepts such as exploitation (istighlal) and injustice (zulm) had gained currency, most notably in the platforms put forward by secular nationalists and Marxists. Baqir al-Sadr drew on this vocabulary in a considerable corpus of texts after 1959, but to promote a revival of Islam in face of the twin threats of secularist and materialist thought. For example, the first third of his Iqtisaduna (Our Economy, 1960) is a critique of Capital Volume 1, attempting to demonstrate that Marx underplays spiritualism in favour of economic reductionism. (The book thus forms an interesting parallel with the attack on Marxism by Michel ‘Aflaq, founder of the Ba’ath, in his 1948 book Fikratuna, Our Idea).

In a series of works—others include Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy, 1959)—Baqir al-Sadr advocated the Islamization of society, and an Islamic state, as the best solution to the plight of the population. Unlike Khomeini, who was later to advocate the wilayat al-faqih—‘rule of the jurists’—al-Sadr accorded the clergy only a supervisory function, and popular elections retained a prominent role. Cockburn does not discuss his output in any detail, but it is important in order to grasp the way in which Iraqi Shia Islamism emerged as a counter to the visions offered by Marxists and secular nationalists. Sadr’s ideological interventions were complemented by his political activity: through the Dawa al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) Party, established in 1957 to challenge the Iraqi Communist Party’s advance among Shia youth, he was able to promote a social programme that did not appear reactionary or lethargic. Not only did the Dawa take up many of the urgent questions posed by the icp, it also drew organizational lessons from it, building clandestine cells at local level.

The Ba’athist crackdown on the icp in the 1960s and 70s opened further space for Sadr’s views to circulate. However, by this time Baqir al-Sadr had become isolated among the marji’iya, who saw the activism of the Dawa as a threat on two levels—undermining clerical sway over the Shia populace, but also provocative to a regime they did not wish to challenge too directly. In 1978 Saddam Hussein and his clique consolidated their dominance, and thereafter would not tolerate the existence of any independent power centre. The Shia clergy retreated into the practice of taqiyya, dissimulation in face of a hostile regime. But when the Iranian Revolution began in 1979, while the Shia clerical establishment remained cautious, al-Sadr sent a jubilant telegram to Tehran, declared a three-day holiday at his Najaf seminary, and penned a series of tracts justifying the new Islamic state. With these acts of defiance he in effect wrote his own death sentence. Detentions of Dawa activists had already begun to multiply when a grenade attack in Baghdad by an Islamist militant provided the pretext for Baqir’s arrest. His body was returned to Najaf a few days later, making him the first Grand Ayatollah to be executed.

Though Baqir al-Sadr left an intellectual legacy, there was now no organization within Iraq that could carry forward the Shia Islamist political project. Five months after the execution of Sadr I, Saddam Hussein launched his ‘whirlwind war’ on Iran, which was to last until 1988, and in which as many as a million people were killed on both sides. Cockburn estimates that 80 per cent of rank-and-file Iraqi troops were Shia, forced to fight their co-religionists at close quarters; meanwhile, exiled Iraqi Shia groups who had been funded and armed by Tehran—most notably the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri)—took part on the Iranian side, and developed a reputation for torturing Shia prisoners even more severely than other Iraqis. This laid the basis for enmities that were to simmer throughout the 1990s, and which re-emerged in force after 2003.

Despite Saudi funds and us weapons, the war ground down the gears of the Ba’ath state. By the time a ceasefire was agreed in 1988, the regime appeared exhausted, and Iraqi nationalism had been discredited to the point that, as Cockburn puts it, ‘when Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 he found the patriotic well had run dry’. Troops abandoned their positions no sooner had fighting in the Gulf War begun, but the ferocious air and ground assault of the us military machine continued. In the aftermath of Saddam’s withdrawal there were spontaneous risings among the Shia of southern Iraq—encouraged by American exhortations to topple Saddam. Actual support, however, was not forthcoming, and President Bush retreated from ‘regime change’; Saddam was given free rein to suppress the Shia uprising. The retribution was harsh. Iraqi government troops rounded up tens of thousands of men, women and children and summarily executed them—the aim, as Cockburn describes it, being ‘to terrorize the Shia population of Iraq by inflicting on them a collective punishment so bloody that they would never rise again’.