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Socialism Today 127 - April 2009

Fighting the US in Iraq

Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shia insurgency in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn

Faber and Faber 2009 £8.99

Muqtada al-Sadr rose to prominence immediately after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime on 9 April 2003. He is usually described as a firebrand, maverick cleric. Patrick Cockburn, who has spent many years reporting from Iraq, contends that this is a lazy characterisation based on a gross underestimation of al-Sadr and the movement he leads. MANNY THAIN reviews this updated, paperback edition.

IN ALL PROBABILITY, the Sadrists were surprised at the scale and immediacy of the support they received. It highlighted the political chasm left behind when Saddam fell. It also showed the dire need for a working-class alternative, as well as the opportunities had such a party existed in Iraq. Among the Shia, only the Sadrists spoke on behalf of the millions of labourers and unemployed, and they poured out in support.

Al-Sadr moved quickly. He had a network of young supporters whom he mobilised, appointing others on the wing. In what was to be renamed Sadr City, for example, he appointed a 23-year-old cleric as his official representative. Sadr City is often called a suburb of Baghdad but is really a city itself, with a population around 2.5 million people, mainly Shia, predominantly poor. Within a couple of months the Sadrists controlled 90% of its mosques, taking over schools, hospitals and welfare centres, which were used as centres for organising neighbourhoods. At Muqtada’s first Friday sermon, in Kufa on 11 April, he urged people to go on the Arba’in pilgrimage to Kerbala, banned under Saddam, helping to mobilise around two million people in wartime conditions.

This powerful position did not arise out of the blue. The roots of the rise of Muqtada al-Sadr go back a long way. Indeed, Cockburn draws on 1,400 years of history to explain it. It is a history of Shia Islam, the Shia in Iraq, and of the Sadrist movement, a mix of puritanical Islam and populist nationalism.

Shia history

THE FUNDAMENTAL RIFT between Sunni and Shia Islam is over the rightful successor to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, contentious because he had no sons. Shia believe that it was Ali, Muhammad’s first cousin. Ali was assassinated on the orders of caliph Mu’awiyah in 661 CE, in what was to become Kufa. When Mu’awiyah died in 680, Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, with his half-brother, Abbas, went to Kufa to fight Mu’awiyah’s son and heir, Yazid, for the leadership of Islam. Hopelessly outnumbered, they were killed at Kerbala. This secured the Umayyad dynasty based in Damascus for what was to become Sunni Islam.

The Abbasid dynasty replaced the Umayyads in 750, with Baghdad becoming the centre of the Muslim world. Prior to this, the differences between Shia and Sunni solely concerned the succession. During the Abbasid period, however, doctrinal differences between the two forms of Islam were established.

The Shia branch that triumphed in Iran and Iraq is known as the Twelvers because its followers believe there have been twelve imams in succession. They believe that the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared in Samarra in the ninth century but did not die and will one day return to rid the world of evil.

The Shia political activism we recognise today developed over the last half-century, particularly after the Iranian revolution of 1978-9, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon following Israel’s invasion of 1982, and the Iraqi Shia uprising in 1991.

Cockburn identifies three key developments which have shaped Iraqi Shia. Firstly, in 1501, the first Safavid shah, Isma’il, seized power in Iran (a non-Arab country), uniting it under Twelver Shiism through forced conversion. Iran’s Shia identity was reinforced by continual wars with the Ottoman (Turkish) empire, the main Sunni power, which included what is now Iraq. As a result, Iraqi Shia were looked on as potential traitors because of their common religion with Iran. This continued under Saddam and influences the US and British administrations today.

Secondly, the Shia developed a powerful, hierarchical clergy which was independent of the state and, potentially, a rival of it. Thirdly, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Iraqi Shia leaders converted Sunni tribes to protect the shrine cities from attack. This transformed Iraq into a country with a Shia majority ruled by regimes based on a Sunni minority.

This history is important because it is ingrained in the collective consciousness of the Shia in Iraq and forms the foundations on which the Sadrist and other Iraqi Shia movements have been built. It is a violent history of betrayal, oppression and endurance – and struggle.

Revolutionary wave

MUQTADA’S FATHER-IN-LAW, ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, and father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr built the Sadrist movement. They were both assassinated by Saddam’s regime. The awe and devotion shown them are crucial to the rise of Muqtada. The al-Sadrs were part of the clerical aristocracy, tracing their lineage to Muhammad via the seventh Shia imam, Musa al-Kazim, who died in 799 where Kadhimiyah was founded, making it one of Iraq’s four shrine cities along with Najaf, Kerbala and Samarra.

In the 1950s, secularism was spreading across the Middle East along with the revolutionary independence movements against the imperialist powers. Pan-Arab nationalism (Arab socialism) was a main pole of attraction, with mass communist parties developing. Younger sections of the Shia elite felt compelled to counter these trends. The 25-year-old Baqir helped set up a political party, al-Da’wa (the Call), in 1957. In 1959 and 1960, he wrote two influential books, Falsafatuna (Our Philosophy) and Iqtisaduna (Our Economics), Islamic counter-attacks on communism and capitalism. Baqir al-Hakim, later the founder of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was fourteen when he joined Dawa. Today’s political elite in Iraq is dominated by relatives of that party’s founders.

In 1958, General Abdul Qasim led a nationalist military coup against the monarchy, initially opening doors to the Communist Party (CP), largely made up of Shia. Qasim got Sadr City (then called Thawra) built in east Baghdad to house poor rural Shia immigrants. In February 1963, another coup took place, the Baath party (radical nationalists) to the fore along with the army and security services, all of which were Sunni-dominated. CP leaders and activists were massacred. The Baath party was ousted later in the year by its former allies, but returned to power in a further military coup in 1968. High oil prices after 1973 enabled the regime to raise overall living standards and dampen popular discontent.

Cockburn gives excellent descriptions of uprisings and protests, including eyewitness accounts. But there is no sense of the struggle for a way forward by the workers themselves. In the post-second world war era, there were revolutionary movements throughout the Muslim world, in Algeria and Egypt for example, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most of these had radical, anti-imperialist, socialist-type aims, such as for land reform and the nationalisation of key industries. But Cockburn’s is a top-down perspective – a capitalist view of history – disappointing in what is otherwise such a good book.

Cockburn explains that Arab nationalism could mask sectarianism: "In 1964, for instance, many banks, commercial and industrial companies were nationalised. The ostensible reason for this was to bring the Iraqi economy in line with state socialist Egypt, with which Iraq was supposedly to combine in the name of Arab unity. But the reality was that the majority of Iraqi businessmen were Shia and the state officials who took over the nationalised companies were mostly Sunni".

For Cockburn, the sectarian divide seems insurmountable. The rise of the communist parties and support for Pan-Arab nationalism, with mass support for the unification of the Arab people, showed the attraction of social revolution to millions of working-class and poor people. Initially, many of the new regimes developed infrastructure and improved health, education and other services, often on the basis of land reform and widespread nationalisation. Sooner or later, however, they became increasingly dictatorial because they were not based on democratic socialist planning and international workers’ solidarity. Nonetheless, they had shown the potential for the success of a class-based programme to replace capitalism and landlordism.

The communist parties were subservient to their Moscow paymasters. The last thing they wanted were democratic workers’ states, which would destabilise the cold-war balance with the west, and set an example which workers in the Soviet Union might emulate, threatening their privileged bureaucratic interests.

Reaping the whirlwind

SHIA ANGER HAD been rising throughout the 1970s, and Cockburn details these important developments. The one which shook Iraq to its foundations was the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Shia were jubilant on massive demonstrations. Repression rained down. Between 4-5,000 Dawa members were rounded up, more than 200 executed. In the summer, Saddam seized absolute power. By March 1980, Dawa membership was punishable by death.

On 4 April 1980, Baqir was arrested. Four days later he was executed together with his sister, Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda. Baqir became known as the First Martyr. News of the executions sparked sporadic demos. A wave of state terror engulfed Shia districts. Thousands of Iraqi Shia deemed to be of Iranian origin were expelled, their houses, land and businesses confiscated.

On 22 September, Saddam launched the ‘whirlwind war’ on Iran – it lasted eight years. He expected a swift victory based on Iraq’s superior military hardware, but Iran was a unified state fired by revolution, with three times Iraq’s population. It soon became gruelling trench warfare with casualties in the hundreds of thousands.

In the initial battles, Shia soldiers – 80% of the rank and file – would shoot into the air, not wanting to kill their co-religionists. But that changed, raising the important issue of national identity. Muhammad Yassin, a Shia army captain, explained: "Initially I was against the war, but later on we heard about the terrible time our prisoners were having in Iranian prisons and the way they were ill treated. After that we began hating the Iranians and we fought very hard. We started to feel a sense of Iraqi national unity, regardless of whether or not Saddam was president".

On 17 November 1982, al-Hakim announced the formation of SCIRI to bring together Dawa and the Islamic Action Organisation, which had links to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Shia Amal militia in Lebanon. SCIRI’s aim was to set up a government in the event of a sudden collapse of Saddam’s regime. Of course, that never happened and SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Organisation, earned opprobrium for torturing Iraqi POWs, treating Shia soldiers particularly cruelly.

Military setbacks raised the possibility of Saddam’s downfall, scaring the US and its allies. Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad in 1983 to deliver the backing of Ronald Reagan’s administration. The CIA passed on satellite images of Iranian positions. Western powers provided loans. They ignored Iraq’s use of mustard gas, and sarin and tabun nerve gas. Eight years of carnage ended in a stalemate on 8 August 1988.

The great US betrayal

IT WAS A turning point for Saddam, something which became clear in the Gulf war in 1991. After Saddam seized control of Kuwait, US, British and other forces started bombing the Iraqi army on 19 January. Shia and Kurd conscripts deserted in droves. Within days of the ground invasion, it was all over.

The Shia uprising began in Basra on 1 March 1991. Military bases were stormed, Baath officials killed. On 5 March, the Kurds rose up, too. At its height, mutinying Shia soldiers held every city south of Baghdad and were close to overthrowing Saddam. Most Shia expected US support. Indeed, George Bush Snr urged them on, and that was a key factor in the uprising happening in the first place. But US troops stood aside or blew up Iraqi arms dumps which could have been used by the rebels.

The Iraqi army had shrunk to less than half its size but the security forces, Baath party and Republican Guard were basically intact. Bush and company had hoped that a coup would oust Saddam. As that did not happen, they preferred not to risk instability in this strategic region. By 12 March, Republican Guards were entering Kerbala. Cockburn lists the atrocities: families slaughtered; busloads of people shot over mass graves; children tied to tanks to deter attacks; dogs eating bodies in the streets. An estimated 150,000 Shia were killed during the uprising, one of the bitterest betrayals in Iraqi Shia history.

In August 1992, Saddam appointed Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr as the official head of Iraq’s Shia leadership. Sadiq mixed Islamic revivalism, nationalism and populism to appeal to angry and alienated young Shia men. He introduced Friday prayers, a radical break with Shia tradition, and resisted by traditionalists like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Iraq’s economy and society were collapsing under UN sanctions imposed since the Gulf war. The tops of the regime increased their personal wealth through the black market and smuggling but state coffers were empty. In 1989, oil revenue was $13 billion, down to $400 million in 1992. Teachers, nurses, doctors, pensioners, etc, were not paid. The infrastructure had been completely smashed in the war.

Sadiq sent emissaries to poor areas and to clans and tribes, concentrating on economic and social issues. Dangerously for Sadiq, his influence and popularity rose. He was gunned down on 19 February 1999 along with his two elder sons, Mustafa and Muammal. He became known as the Second Martyr. Outbreaks of violence greeted the news. Inevitably, mass arrests and executions followed. A month later an ill-coordinated uprising, the ‘al-Sadr intifada’, was betrayed when 10,000 Badr fighters from Iran never arrived because al-Hakim pulled out. This fiasco exacerbated tensions between the Sadrists and SCIRI, and has not been forgotten. The virtual all-out war between the two for control of the southern cities in 2007 is testimony to that.

The rise of the militias

MUQTADA WAS 25 when his father and two brothers were killed. He was the least known of Sadiq’s sons but had played a key role in his organisation. He edited the Sadrist magazine, organised Sadiq’s security at mosque meetings, and was responsible for Sadr City. He was well connected and had years of experience organising Shia masses on the ground.

The US set up the Iraqi Governing Council on 13 July 2003. It had no power, its members regarded as corrupt US stooges. SCIRI, Dawa and secular Iraqi leaders joined it. The Sadrists benefited from being excluded and Muqtada denounced it.

On 18 July, Muqtada announced that he was setting up the Mehdi army, calling for a general mobilisation against the US and British occupiers. Initially, this seemed to lose support as the prevalent Shia view was to compel the US to hold elections, to give the Shia a majority. The brutal occupation, however, along with the rise of sectarian violence shifted the terrain. When an al-Qa’ida suicide bomber killed al-Hakim and 125 others, it showed that the Shia were targets as much as US and British troops. It also undermined the gradualist approach of people like al-Sistani.

The catalogue of killings is too vast to list and reinforced the view that the last people Iraqis could rely on for security were the occupying forces, that the politicians were impotent, and that they had to defend themselves. This raises the need for community-based self-defence militias, democratically run by local committees. These could seek to widen cooperation, eventually developing united resistance against occupation. But in the chaos of invasion, imperialist and regional power struggles, deep sectarian division and the lack of any mass, working-class parties, they did not have a chance to develop. Sectarian interests and the militias which backed them thrived.

US politicians and military commanders had no coherent post-Saddam strategy, lurching from one crisis to another. US viceroy, Paul Bremer, for example, an ignorant and arrogant imperialist, was hell-bent on confronting Muqtada. Such a confrontation, however, risked an outright Shia uprising at a time of escalating armed Sunni resistance. When advisers tried to explain to Bremer that the Sadrists had a strong base among millions of Shia poor, he angrily replied that he "didn’t care a damn about the underclass and what they represented".

As unpopularity to the US occupation grew, so did support for Muqtada. US and British soldiers stoked the tension, and the failure to deliver jobs, electricity, food, water and security was painfully obvious. By the end of 2007, food rations were still only half what they were under Saddam four years earlier – after years of UN sanctions had stripped Iraqi cupboards bare. Three-quarters of doctors, pharmacists and nurses had left their jobs and half had fled abroad.

Najaf power struggle

COOPERATION HAD BEEN growing between Shia fighters in Najaf and Sunni fighters in Fallujah. In April 2004, Shia and Sunni in Baghdad were side-by-side donating blood for the wounded. It was a brief glimpse that joint Shia/Sunni resistance could have developed under different conditions. Up to the end of 2005, Muqtada enjoyed popularity among some Sunni for his consistent opposition to the US.

On 28 June 2004, a puppet interim Iraqi government was installed. In early August, heavy fighting with US troops erupted again. At the same time, al-Sistani went to London for heart treatment. His absence was interpreted as a green light to the US to advance into Najaf. US marines boasted they had killed 300 Mehdi fighters in the first 24 hours. Television footage showed women lying dead in the street, and masses of people fleeing the pulverised city. Even Iraqi vice-president, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was compelled to criticise the operation publicly.

On 25 August, al-Sistani returned to lead a peace march to Najaf. Muqtada agreed to a plan to demilitarise Najaf and Kufa, withdrawing the Mehdi army. The interim government had been sidelined and the might of the US had failed to defeat the Mehdi army, again. Muqtada had narrowly survived – no mean feat in itself. But al-Sistani had shown that his authority outweighed the government and the US. He had also broken Muqtada’s grip on Najaf.

Muqtada disappeared for eight months, re-emerging with a new approach, stressing political above military action. Shia parties had formed an electoral coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), on 16 December 2004, and Muqtada came on board. Iyad Allawi was replaced as prime minister by al-Jaafari.

The next major sectarian atrocity took place on 22 February 2006 when men in police uniforms blew up the al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra. Baghdad split into warring townships. The Mehdi army began attacking Sunni mosques. Within a few days, 1,300 people, mostly Sunni, had been killed. Deaths increased every month to December. People were driven out as neighbourhoods came under the control of one side or another: "A pervasive sense of terror settled over Baghdad and central Iraq as people who had lived together for decades began to kill each other or identify targets for the death squads". By the end of 2006, the Mehdi army controlled half of Baghdad and 80% of its Shia areas.

Publicly, Muqtada denounced sectarian killings, but many Mehdi army units did what they wanted. Other units were originally local vigilante groups which then identified with Muqtada without any formal control. As the sectarian conflict intensified, local commanders became more independent and powerful. Muqtada never received universal support from the Shia. Many in Najaf had denounced him for fighting in their city. Where the Sadrist were in control, they imposed their own version of sharia law by arbitrary arrests and trials – and extra-judicial killings. They closed video shops, attacked liquor stores and forced women wear the veil, fuelling resentment. They had attacked Gypsy villages, driving out their residents.

The surge

ON 10 JANUARY 2007, Bush announced he was sending in an extra 20,000 troops. One of the main aims was to break the Mehdi army’s grip in Baghdad. Bush spoke of "an escalating danger from Shia extremists", accusing Iran of "funding and arming terrorists". It was the old, familiar formula.

According to Cockburn, Iranian intelligence substantially increased its influence in the Sadrist movement from 2005, gaining control of some Mehdi army units. As a loose organisation, it was easy to infiltrate. Iran would offer the young, unpaid and often unemployed fighters $300-400 a month to train in Iran. Clearly, there are many connections between the Sadrists and the Iranian regime, which wields a lot of influence in the region. But it would be a mistake to regard Muqtada merely as a puppet of the Iranian regime.

We have to see how Barack Obama’s administration plays it, but in the last year of Bush’s rule the rhetoric became increasingly aggressive. Iran was demonised as the force behind every act against US forces. As Cockburn points out, this could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more likely an American attack on Iran, the greater the incentive for it to engage in Iraq on the ground, taking the fight to US forces closer to home.

The surge began in February 2007, and Muqtada took steps to safeguard his leading clerics, local organisers, and Mehdi army commanders, ordering them under cover. Cockburn argues that the surge contributed to the sharp drop in sectarian killings, but points out that there were few mixed areas left in Baghdad. In other words, the sectarian battles had been fought to a conclusion.

Furthermore, before the surge started, Sunni areas had already turned against al-Qaida, which had tried to monopolise power within the Sunni community at the end of 2006. The US military began funding Sunni tribal leaders to fight al-Qaida. But their motivation is not necessarily to support the government or the US. Cockburn quotes the ominous warning of Abu Abed, a commander of the US-backed Amariya Knights: "Amariya is just the beginning. After we finish with al-Qaida here, we will turn towards our main enemy, the Shia militias".

Cockburn’s book ends with an afterword – new to the paperback edition – dealing with the attempt by the Iraq army to stamp its authority on events. On 25 March 2008, 15,000 Iraqi troops moved into Basra to target the Sadrists. Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister since the beginning of 2007, boasted he would humble the militiamen. Mehdi army fighters came back onto the streets pushing the Iraqi army back. Three days into the fighting, television pictures showed policemen in Sadr City handing over their weapons to the local Sadrist office. The government spokesman for the Baghdad security plan was taken hostage.

The US military could not let this operation fail, especially during the US presidential election. Senior American officers were rushed in to coordinate planning. US planes ferried in supplies and extra troops. The battle for Sadr City ended with an agreement brokered by the Iranians under which the Iraqi army entered the area for the first time since the fall of Saddam. The undefeated militiamen went home. Meanwhile, Iran had demonstrated its importance as a central player in Iraq.

Early in the book, Cockburn writes: "Muqtada represented the ultimate American nightmare in Iraq. They had got rid of Saddam only to see him replaced by a black-turbaned virulently anti-American Shia cleric. Whatever reason the US had invaded Iraq for, it was not for this".

But it’s too late, now. The invasion of Iraq by US and British forces let the sectarian genie out of the bottle. We need to understand what is taking place so that we can put forward a socialist alternative to unite working-class and poor people across ethnic and religious divides. Cockburn’s book is an important contribution to understanding the past, present and future of this important country.


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