Faber £16.99

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?