Muqtada al-Sadr comes from a family of martyrs: his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was the leader of a Shia religious revival in the 1990s which became so threatening to Saddam Hussein that he had the cleric murdered, along with two of his sons. Muqtada’s father-in-law and cousin was Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a revolutionary leader and thinker, who once said: “If my little finger was Ba’athist, I would cut it off.” He was executed along with his sister by Saddam in 1980.
It is a measure of the contradictory nature of the US-led occupation of Iraq that within a year of the 2003 invasion, American officers were saying publicly that their orders were “to kill or capture” Muqtada, although he came from a clerical dynasty with a record of opposition to Saddam.
In theory, the US was nation-building in Iraq. In practice, this turned out to mean that only Iraqi nationalists wholly supportive of US policy were deemed politically acceptable. Muqtada was, and is, always hostile to the occupation. He believes it forced on Iraq a leadership which has stayed in power despite toxic levels of corruption and incompetence.
Long before last weekend’s deal on Iran’s nuclear power programme, the Americans and Iranians cooperated uneasily in determining which Iraqis would rule Iraq. Such is the division between Iraqi communities, sects and parties that foreign powers have a measure of control.
Perhaps more surprising than Muqtada’s personal survival is the persistence of the Sadrist movement, despite savage repression by Saddam followed by war with the Americans and conflict with the present Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It survives because it has a leadership prepared to be martyred and a mass following among the poor.
Nevertheless, Sadrism deeply divides the Iraqi Shia, many of whom see the movement as having a history of sectarian violence that belies its present moderation. It denounces a government of which it somehow remains part while demanding that Mr Maliki be replaced.