Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who Is Moqtada Al-Sadr?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who Is Moqtada Al-Sadr?

Article excerpt

Nine-hundred-and-twenty-five people have died in the latest assault on militiamen tied to the 34-year-old Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Two-thousand-six-hundred-and-five have been wounded. That's a staggering toll, even amid the Iraq war's devastation. What's more unsettling is that those numbers, according to Baghdad sources, are from just over a month in one part of Iraq: Sadr City.

But the overall toll in the ongoing siege on Sadr's loosely organized Mahdi Army is far greater.

Who is Moqtada al-Sadr? A firebrand cleric? An anti-American agitator? An Iranian pawn? Those are some of the ways we hear him described in the Western press. Indeed, he has been fiercely against the American occupation since the beginning of the war. But as Patrick Cockburn points out in his timely new book, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, none of these labels explains the pivotal role he is playing in Iraq. (Note to readers: The Monitor uses a different English spelling of Moqtada's name than does Cockburn.)

"Muqtada al-Sadr is the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the US invasion," writes Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the Independent in London who has been covering Iraq since the late 1970s. "He is the Messianic leader of the religious and political movement of the impoverished Shia underclass whose lives were ruined by a quarter of a century of war, repression, and sanctions."

The only way to fathom Sadr's support among Iraqis, says Cockburn, is to understand something about both Shiite history and Sadr's family lineage. To that end, Cockburn takes readers across the Shiite heartland of Iraq and into the religion's holiest places there, Karbala and Najaf. The AD 680 battle at Karbala, in which Imam Hussein died a martyr's death, stands at the center of the Shiite faith.

"The legacy of the grim circumstances in which Shiism was born has had a profound effect on the beliefs and actions of its followers," writes Cockburn. "It is a faith conceived in defeat and subjection," writes Cockburn. He says that "with its emphasis on the endurance of suffering under an oppressive state, [Shiism] was peculiarly well-suited to the psychological needs of a community living under the rule of a leader as cruel as Saddam Hussein. …

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