Who is Moqtada al-Sadr?

He is the 'most important and most surprising figure' of the Iraq war.

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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.)

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"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."

And in Shiite Iraq, he was indeed brutal. Hussein killed and tortured scores of Shiites, including two of the sect's most prominent leaders: Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and his cousin Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, Moqtada's father, known now as the first and second martyrs.

As Cockburn tells it, Baqir was from one "of the great religious families of the Middle East ... part of the clerical aristocracy." He was killed in 1980 along with his sister, Amina Sadr Bint al-Huda.

Years after Baqir's death, Sadiq declared himself the supreme leader of Iraqi Shiites. When he became too threatening to the regime in 1999, he was killed along with two of his sons.

So before Moqtada ever stepped into his leading role, the Sadrist current in Iraqi society was well established, particularly among the nation's poorer Shiites. Sadr's ancestry alone commands respect, and his face is now plastered across southern Iraq on posters along with images of his father and Baqir.

In a sense, Sadr is picking up where his forebears left off. But while the Sadrist movement spread under Hussein, it was the US invasion of Iraq that set in motion a struggle for power that is still being resolved.

After the invasion, Sadr started his Mahdi Army as a grass-roots militia to protect Shiites victimized by Sunni insurgents. But it soon became a means for him to control southern Iraq.

Cockburn goes perhaps further than any Western journalist in explaining what drives Sadr. Yet he admits that the cleric himself remains a mystery. Readers may be left unsatisfied that Cockburn does not probe deeper into Sadr's psyche, but should recognize the great lengths – and great risks – he takes to peel away some of the mystique surrounding one of Iraq's influential leaders. While Cockburn doesn't interview Sadr himself, he talks to his partisans, his fighters, and his rivals.

Incomplete though it may be, Cockburn's book is a must-read for any student of the Iraq war – or for anyone who wants to simply better understand the latest dynamic in the struggle for power there.

Michael B. Farrell is the Monitor's Middle East editor.

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