My following review is about the book by The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq:
Kristofer Shawn Goldsmith was a former army sergeant in the US army. He enlisted in late 2003 at age eighteen and believed then, “under the influence of the media and its terrorism paranoia”, that Saddam Hussein had to be disarmed of his weapons of mass destruction.
Five years later, he gave testimony to Congress about his experiences in the war-torn country and explained the ways in which he was ordered by superiors to “kill everything that moves”, including civilians. He reported regularly visiting Baghdad’s Sadr City Women’s Hospital and “never providing any real medical supplies, despite the fact that the hospitals and clinics in the area were in dire need of antibiotics and basic surgical equipment.” The Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr was revered and “any American bullet, rocket, mortar or bomb which finds itself astray and headed towards Sadr City’s residents only increases the [cleric’s] following.”
Patrick Cockburn, Britain’s Independent Iraq reporter, is one of the few Western journalists who has travelled to Iraq since the 1970s and refused to be embedded, either militarily or psychologically. His last book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, painted a George W. Bush led invasion that lacked historical insight or sensitivity and blundered its way to inevitable failure. Anti-US protests in Sadr City in late May further highlighted the unpopularity of the ongoing American presence with thousand of citizens demanding an end to a likely agreement to allow the US to build permanent bases in Iraq and grant American citizens and military contractors in Iraq immunity from prosecution.
Cockburn’s latest work focuses on Al-Sadr, one of the key political figures in Iraq, and aims to debunk the deliberately skewed Western media interpretation of him as a “firebrand” or “maverick.” In fact, Cockburn argues, the Najaf-based Al-Sadr “proved a cautious and skilled politician, knowing when to advance and when to retreat. Commentary on Muqtada has come to admit his importance though it usually demonises or belittles him, veering between presenting him as a clerical gangster or as a successful demagogue of limited intelligence and ability who somehow leads the only mass movement in Iraqi politics.”
Like the experience of former sergeant Goldsmith, only Western politicians and commentators deny the clerics sway over millions of Iraqis. Recent Senate testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker accused Iran of supporting “Shiite extremists” and accused Al-Sadr of being one such extremist. Sadly for America, he remains far more popular than its brutal occupation.
Cockburn paints a compelling picture of Al-Sadr’s upbringing – Saddam killed his father and two brothers in the late 1990s – and profiles countless poor Iraqis willing to sacrifice their lives for a truly united nation, free of Western interference. Legitimacy and loyalty to Shiite leaders have always trumped allegiance to the Bush and Blair doctrine. “Few Iraqis outside Kurdistan felt that the US-led occupation was legitimate”, writes Cockburn, “and they therefore did not give loyalty to it or the Iraqi governments it sponsored.”
Al-Sadr’s success in rallying his often-vicious Mehdi Army was never understood by Washington’s colonial mentality. He was the exact opposite of the kind of Iraqi leader imagined by the Americans. “Instead of the smooth, dark-suited, English-speaking exiles”, Cockburn explains, “whom the White House had hoped would turn Iraq into a compliant US ally, Muqtada looked too much like a younger version of Ayatollah Khomeini.” It didn’t seem to bother the loudest boosters of the war that their handpicked exiles, such as conman Ahmed Chalabi, enjoyed virtually no support in Iraq itself.
Cockburn, whose writings are arguably the finest of any Western reporter in Iraq, has profiled the gradual disintegration of the country since 2003. Millions of refugees, over a million killed and a growing Islamisation all contribute to a war that remains largely hidden in the Western media.
This striking book provides a useful anecdote to the current American presidential campaign, where “victory” and “defeat” are terms thrown around by politicians whose experience highlights the embedded mindset. The Iraq war was doomed to failure before it was even launched, a belief that unprecedented violence could create a nation in Washington’s corrupt image. Cockburn explains why.