Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq

Reviewed by Veronica Del Torre

BOOK REVIEW

By Veronica Del Torre | When it comes to Iraq, it is common to assume that all its main, contemporary, challenges are rooted in the aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003. However, the causes of today’s turbulence can be traced back to the era of Saddam Hussein, during which the country was riven by internal sectarian divisions. Over the past week, people have again taken to the streets in Baghdad protesting the corruption of public institutions, the high level of youth unemployment, the dysfunction of services and the difficult state of the country’s economy. The same causes pushed people to the streets in 2017; yet this time the protests are more widespread, more intense and the crackdown of the government has been significantly scaled-up! People allege that behind the economic dysfunction is a political paralysis whose responsibility lies within the system itself and its key people.

Largely exploring the nature of this political paralysis from a historical prospective, Patrick Cockburn’s book Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq explains how al-Sadr emerged so prominently in the political arena over the last decade as an important figure who is shaping the present and future of Iraq. The book sheds light on the history of the al-Sadr family − one of the most prominent Shi’a religious families in Iraq − and on how persecution by the Saddam Hussein regime conditioned the future of this family before the US invasion. Cockburn provides comprehensive insights on the cultural and religious context of Iraq in the decade between Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the US invasion and occupation after 2003. Despite that several important developments have occurred since the book’s 2008 publication, Cockburn’s examination remains valid to understand the steps that led to the ongoing upheaval in Iraq. The work illustrates how Iraq’s entire population was deeply affected by the United Nations (UN) sanctions imposed on the country following the Kuwait war, leaving many in conditions of extreme poverty and starvation. Accordingly, the Shi’a community was particularly impacted by the ensuing economic crisis, as they had limited access to the well-paid jobs and already struggled under the regime. Saddam Hussein’s repression of protests transformed the forefathers of the Sadrists movement, Muhamad Baqir al-Sadr (Sadr I), and his successor Muhamad Sadiq al-Sadr (Sadr II), into martyrs. This gave the regime’s most dangerous opponents a strong ideological and religious base from which to rise. The Sadrist movement, religious and populist in its ideology, received wide support in the poorest Shi’a provinces. 

This work also critically explains some miscalculation made by the Western coalition at that time. Worryingly, the US and its allies did not consider the socio-cultural and socio-political structures of the country in its historical context and overlooked pre-existing challenges and faultlines at the domestic level. The consequence of Saddam’s fall was underestimated in an environment of sectarian politics. The power vacuum led to the increased importance of religious authorities as they attempted to fill the void.

Muqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah al-Sistani are the two most prominent Shi’a figures in the arena of religion and politics respectively. The 2018 elections produced a government in Baghdad led by parties identified as Shi’a. However, the Sadrist movement still sits in opposition as a religious-nationalist movement and it is now supporting the protests and calling for new elections, while accusing the government of corruption. On the other side, Iraq’s most important Shi’a cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, supports a state based on Islamic law in Iraq that would reflect the Iranian wilayat al-faqih. Accordingly, during these protests, al-Sistani asked the government to respect the requests of the people before quashing the protests. In this context, the support of the two predominant Shi’a figures for the protests and in opposition to the government’s use of force can be particularly meaningful. In a country where religion is so enmeshed with politics, these positions can work as a catalyst to inflame the protests even further.

Overall, this book contributes to understanding why it is so difficult for Iraq to achieve internal stability and how poor choices made by previous leaders helped actors such as Muqtada al-Sadr rise from an unknown position to a leading and controversial role. Moreover, Cockburn analysed, already at that time, how central it is to focus on the role of Iran, which controlled and continues to control security and political proxies in Iraq.

Although it is a dense, heavy, work, this book is highly recommended for its in-depth explanation of the history of key Iraqi actors over the past decades. In turn, this would be necessary to better contextualise current events and, perhaps, even devise more effective policy choices among the neighbours and the wider international community in relation to Iraq.

08 October 2019

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