Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, By Patrick Cockburn

A new study gives Westerners the clearest insight yet into the muddied local politics of war-torn Iraq

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Iraq war is how, even now, more than five years after it started, there is still a lack of general understanding about what has actually unfolded there. To many people, the conflict is merely an incomprehensible Hobbesian mess of mindless bloodshed and violence largely devoid of internal logic.

The spin, propaganda and lies force-fed by politicians and government officials who should have behaved better has left the general public woefully ill-equipped to understand the Iraqi social forces that have shaped events in Mesopotamia.

Rarely has this failing been illustrated more clearly than in much of the coverage of the recent fighting in Basra, where the struggle between rival Shia groups to fill the void left by British forces finally burst into open warfare last month. The Shia militiamen roaming the streets with their rocket-propelled grenades and scarf-hidden faces were portrayed in official statements as religious fanatics seeking martyrdom when, in fact, they were trying to secure control of the city's local government and thereby a share of the south's oil resources.

The Iraqi soldiers they fought with were seen as part of a national military undergoing its first major combat test. They were in reality as much militiamen as their opponents – followers of a Shia political group whose electoral success meant they had been able to gain control of Iraq's security services and stuff them full of their own men.

Iraq's political history did not begin at the moment US bombs began falling on Baghdad in 2003. The Shia politicians who have emerged as the country's leaders since Saddam Hussein's fall had already been feuding for decades before America's tanks began to roll across the Kuwaiti border. What unfolded on the streets of Basra was the continuation of a struggle for the leadership of Iraq's Shia that had its hatreds forged in the uprising of 1991 and the traumas of the mass blood-letting of the Iran-Iraq war.

The problem for anyone seeking to understand these historical currents was that, with Iraq under Saddam often inaccessible to Western reporters, and Iraq after Saddam often too dangerous for them, there was little information available to explain exactly what the US and Britain had blundered into.

That is, at least, until now. For Patrick Cockburn lays out with a masterly control of detail the sweep of modern Iraqi Shia political history.

The book's primary topic is supposedly Moqtada al-Sadr, the revolutionary Shia cleric who created a mass movement that has done more than any other force to shape Iraq during the last few years, yet he barely appears in its pages until halfway through it. This is because the sudden rise and behaviour of the Sadrist movement is not "explicable" without an understanding of the social, religious and political forces that created it.

What follows is the most comprehensive account I have yet read of the popular movements created by Moqtada's father-in-law and father, both of whom were clerics of such popularity that they were assassinated by Saddam, and the development and failure of the 1991 Shia uprising.

The achievement of this book is that, by placing the events of the present Iraq war within the context of the developing history of Iraqi Shias, it illustrates how the events of recent years were in large part merely a continuation of pre-existing social and political developments. America and Britain's failure to appreciate this, Cockburn argues convincingly, is the primary cause of the catalogue of errors which has caused the war to become a "cataclysm" in Iraq's history comparable to the "Mongol invasion of 1258".

He lays out the social and economic problems caused by Saddam's wars and the West's sanctions, and explains how these provided fertile conditions for the entwining of the twin traditions of Iraqi tribalism and Shia puritanism on which Sadr's movement is based. He also makes accessible the political machinations and alliances that have divided and united Saddam's Shia opponents, and makes comprehensible the events that fuelled Sadr's intolerance and suspicion, as he turned his followers into the feared Mehdi Army.

The same political forces were responsible for the recent events in Basra. Those militiamen with their rocket-propelled grenades were Sadr supporters, while the Iraqi troops who opposed them were largely the followers of his prime rivals for leadership of the Shia, the Iran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which, since Sadr's father's time, has feared the Sadrist movement for being too populist and reformist.

Cockburn's book makes clear why Basra was merely a new battleground for an old fight, and how its recent skirmishes are only the latest, and certainly not the last, time the hostility between these groups has resulted in bullets flying. The resolution of this inter-Shia animosity will be more important than any decisions made in Washington in determining if there is to be any peace for Iraq.

By explaining what such a resolution would involve, and how it at present remains so unlikely, Cockburn has produced a work that is indispensable reading for anyone wishing to understand what is likely to be next for Iraq – and why, in the short-term, that future is likely to be a bloody one.

Oliver Poole was the Iraq correspondent of 'The Daily Telegraph'. His new book, 'Red Zone: Five Bloody Years in Baghdad', is published by Reportage Press at £12.99