Tomgram: Patrick Cockburn: Petraeus’s Ghost

Dandelion Salad

By Tom Engelhardt
April 08, 2008

Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who emerged triumphant from an Iraqi government assault on his Mahdi Army militia in Basra (and Baghdad) has called for a “million-strong” march in Baghdad tomorrow to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The demonstration just happens to fall on one of the days that General David Petraeus is to report to Congress on post-surge “progress” in Iraq. This is unlikely to be pure happenstance. Despite being regularly labeled “hot-headed,” a “firebrand,” and the like in the American press, Sadr, as Patrick Cockburn shows in his new book Muqtada, is a canny, cautious, strategically savvy political leader. In fact, he has turned out to play the life-and-death game of Iraqi politics better than any of the teams of American and Iraqi officials sent up against him, including most recently Gen. Petraeus, American Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

As you watch Petraeus and Crocker go through their paces today and tomorrow, don’t imagine them alone at that table in front of a Senate committee. There’s a ghostly figure beside them, that “hot-headed” “radical cleric,” who has made a mockery of their plans for a pacified Iraq. For those of us who don’t know enough about that shadowy figure, Patrick Cockburn is, at this second, riding to the rescue. When it comes to timing, you couldn’t ask for better. His book on Sadr, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq is being published this very day as the cleric fights for news space with the general. As with so much else in these last years in Iraq, Cockburn was taking Sadr’s true measure while others, including actual hot-headed figures like that Bush administration viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, continued to look elsewhere or radically underestimate him.

Seymour Hersh has called Cockburn, who writes for the British paper, The Independent, “quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” It’s hard to disagree with that. In a war of reportorial embedment, he’s been a unilateral, an almost recklessly, daringly free agent. He’s had some good company over the years: Robert Fisk in looted Baghdad amid the ashes of the royal archives of Iraq in April 20003 (“…and the Americans did nothing…”); Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post wandering the backstreets of Baghdad in somewhat better days; freelancer Nir Rosen in Fallujah in 2004; the British Guardian’s correspondent Ghaith Abdul-Ahad with the Sunni resistance and recently in embattled Baghdad; various correspondents for Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy), including Leila Feidel, and a host of barely credited or uncredited Iraqi reporters working for Western outfits (whose normal journalists can hardly circulate in Iraq). But Cockburn, who never seems to stop circulating, is still sui generis.

The following piece on Muqtada al-Sadr is the final chapter of Cockburn’s new book and appears at thanks to his publisher, Scribner, and his fine editor Colin Robinson. It’s the perfect antidote to Petraeus’s assessment of the Iraqi situation. Too bad our senators won’t hear Muqtada al-Sadr’s version of the same. Cockburn’s book, by the way, is eye-opening. Tom

Riding the Tiger

Muqtada al-Sadr and the American Dilemma in Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn

Muqtada al-Sadr is the most important and surprising figure to emerge in Iraq since the U.S. invasion. 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.

From the moment he unexpectedly appeared in the dying days of Saddam Hussein’s regime, U.S. emissaries and Iraqi politicians underestimated him. So far from being the “firebrand cleric” as the Western media often described him, he often proved astute and cautious in leading his followers.

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