Customer Reviews: Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq
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on May 4, 2008
General Petraeus' recent report to Congress contained the name of only one person. It was not Nouri Al-Maliki (Prime Minister of Iraq) or Abu Ayyub Al-Masri (head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq), but Muqtada Al-Sadr, the subject of this book. That, combined with the fact that it is the only biography of Sadr on the market establishes its importance.

In the first chapter, the author establishes his bona fides showing that he is not a journalist that never ventures out of the Green Zone. He gives a dramatic account of an incident with Sadr supporters at a check-point as he was attempting to travel to Najaf to interview an official within the Sadrist movement.

In the subsequent chapters, the reader receives a thumbnail sketch of the Shia in Iraq and offers a biography of Muqtada's predecessors in leading the movement, who were his father and his father's cousin. While seemingly sparse, it is actually the fullest account of their lives that can be found (in English, at least). Also, while some may balk that there are so many chapters that do not deal with Muqtada himself, it is absolutely vital context that allows the reader to understand the nature of the movement that Muqtada became the leader of.

Most of the balance of the book is devoted to Muqtada's role in the events following the invasion of Iraq. As was the case with the first chapter, the coverage is enhanced due to Cockburn's 'outside the safe zone' reporting.

The strength of the book lies in the biographical details on the Sadr's gained from personal interviews. They are to be found nowhere else and will certainly be a building block for any subsequent biographies. The book makes for lively reading and because of that, can easily be read in the span of an evening or two.

There are two flaws I found in the book, one fairly trivial, the other one representing a significant caveat. The trivial one lies in how the early chapters are written. They are very choppy chronologically, there are multiple points where the author gets ahead of himself and the reader is continually jumped back and forth between recent and distant past. The more significant one deals with topics outside of the biography. One example is how Cockburn breezily dismisses claims of Iranian support for the Sadr movement (in which the evidence was the roadside bombs being used) by stating that roadside bombs have been used since the 1920's. But there was more to the case than he reports: The damning evidence was the very specific design that was being used. Another is by offering Petraeus' statement on improved security in Baghdad and dismissing it with a statement that only a trickle of people have returned to their original neighborhood. Clearly, the two statements are not exclusive. It is unfortunate that his analysis and reporting of American leaders is wholly lacking the nuance and detail that exists when he deals with figures in the Sadrist movement.

The flaws notwithstanding, I was very glad to see this book's appearance and was pleased with it overall. As brief as it is, it still represents the most comprehensive account of Muqtada and his movement out there. While there will certainly be more thorough books in the future (it is practically a given that someone will attempt a comparison of Sadr's movement and Hizbollah), this will more than suffice for now. Four stars.
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VINE VOICEon July 4, 2008
The author provides both a first hand account of the Shia poltical environment after the fall of Saddam's regime as well as a history of the unique and bitter relationship between the Shia and Saddam that is most interesting for westerners as the author explains not only the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni but also between the Shia themselves. The book is not intended to be a bio of Muqtada al-Sadr but to underline his role in the Shia political conflicts within Iraq today. The most interesting aspects of the book is the telling of how the Shia were punished and killed during Saddam regime particularly Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr. In summary yet informative detail, the author explains how the murder of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr caused a split among the Shia particularly those leaders that fled the country and then returned after Saddam's fall. The best example of this violent split is when Sayyid Abdul Majid al-Khoei returns to Iraq to assume a leadership role among the Shia but then is brutally murdered almost at Muqtada al-Sadr's door step. The slaughter of the Shia after the coalition stopped during Deset Storm, after encouraging an uprising, is well discussed with the bitterness it invoked along with the post Iraq war misunderstandings by the U.S. occupation most noted by Paul Bremmer. This is a very concise but well written educational look at the political situation in Iraq. My only criticism is that books in detail on the middle east should have a glossary of terms and a defined character list, for those less familar with middle east terms and titles, and I include myself, to assist the reader.
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on April 27, 2008
"Stalingrad in Iraq" deserves to be a subtitle of this thin but illuminating volume. The US Army is as entombed in Iraq as the German 6th Army was in the Soviet city along the Volga. The end results are the same in both cases: strategic defeat. Not defeat yet to come, but defeat that is already an accomplished fact: none of the Army's tactical victories can or will alter the fact. I suspect much of the Iraqi resistance knows this while the US refuses to admit it; the Germans never did until it was too late to matter. Interestingly, the book's main character, Muqtada Al-Sadr, doesn't really make an appearance until the end. The author justifies this by stating that the man cannot be understood apart from his family history and the history of Shia Islam. Even before the war began I never believed that the US or its British poodle would have a snowball's chance in Hell of succeeding. Certainly the US experience in Vietnam, the French experience in Vietnam and Algeria, and the British experience in Iraq should have provided some clue to the Coalition's clueless leaders. The religious dimension is crucial to understanding the unfolding catastrophe. The emergence of Shia Islam in Iraq as THE major player alters the region's whole balance of power and threatens to destroy American predominance there for good or certainly for the foreseeable future. The Shias have a very long memory, as this book well explains: what happened 1400 years ago is as current to them as yesterday's news is to us. They never forget and know that their moment has come. Iraq is the spiritual and historical heart of Shia Islam. More than anyone else, so millions believe, Muqtada Al-Sadr exemplifies this conjunction of faith, power and political savvy. The US demonizes him as they demonized Saddam. There is one difference, Al-Sadr is the genuine article while Saddam was nothing more than a hapless egomanical clown--he was easy to knock over, Al-Sadr won't be. Like it or not, he is Iraq's future. this excellent book explains why.
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VINE VOICEon August 14, 2010
I think this is a solid book by an author knowledgeable about Iraq. He wrote Out of the Ashes about Saddam's phoenix like rise after the Gulf War. I thought that book was very good. In this book, he shows that Al-Sadr is an important personality on the Iraqi political scene and therefore someone to take seriously. However, few of the American officials ever took this man seriously, and that is why he is standing in the wings, ready to lead the poor Shia to a place of power in Iraq.

This is a well written book about the political scene in Iraq in 2008. Although Al-Sadr has not taken any steps to assume power, he has become a political boss to the Shia and someone that will be powerful in a post American Iraq.
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VINE VOICEon April 20, 2008
As an account of the violent and tragic recent history of Iraq's Shi'a, I would give this book five stars. I learned a great deal about the Shi'a faith and the Sadr Trend as well as about the other major Shi'a factions such as the Dawa and SCIRI. It's a pity that this account was not available and read by the policy makers before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It might have spared us some grief or at least explained a lot of Iraqi behavior that must have seemed inexplicable at the time.

But I couldn't help but think that the book was a little bit thin about the man mentioned in the title, Muqtada Sadr. Given the fact that the book is only 204 pages long (and not 240 as listed here) and the fact that Muqtada is not discussed until well into the book, that's not that surprising.

I also think that the book is less than authoritative when critiquing US policy inside Iraq. Unlike when he focuses on the politics of the Shi'a clergy, Cockburn doesn't seem to have done quite as thorough a job explaining why Paul Bremer and the other major American actors in Iraq thought and acted the way that they did.

I also think that the book bends over backwards to excuse, minimize, and rationalize the fact that the Iranians causing trouble for us in Iraq, trouble that is getting some of our people killed there. Cockburn never really provides the documentation for his claims that what the Iranians are doing doesn't amount to very much. He just makes the statement and lets it hang there as if it was unchallengeable.

But in the end, it's still well-worth reading. I just don't think that it's unbiased or the last word on the topic.
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on May 21, 2008
This is quite simply THE definitive book on the Iraqi Shia political movements. It is written by the best (and sometimes it seems only) reporter in Iraq. Its must-reading for anyone who wants to understand the real political situation in Iraq.
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on May 26, 2008
Patrick Cockburn's approximately 30 years of covering Iraq give him the institutional memory, historical perspective and varied sources to deliver a nuanced profile of Muqtada al-Sadr. Cockburn is not the type of journalist to hang around hotels hobnobbing with elites to get his stories, but is willing to risk his life.
Cockburn shows that al-Sadr is more pragmatic than radical and that he only has partial control of the Mahdi Army which is less an army than several volunteer militias with varied agendas. The arrogance and brutality of Saddam Hussein and the Americans who overthrew him is also documented and how it allowed al-Sadr to gain power no matter how perilous his grip on it is.
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on February 1, 2011
So much more clear picture of the history of the Sadrist Movement. Being a non-Iraqi Shia I never knew these facts about the Sadrs, and I used to dislike Muqtada to a great extent. The background of Muqtada explains a lot of things. Another special thing is the account of Sadr II (Muqtada's Father).
Really good read even for some one not interested in Iraq because the story of this man is full of drama and suspense.
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on January 16, 2009
This book tells alot about the Iraqi Civil War between the Shi'ites and the Sunni with Al-Queda playing both sides to fan the flames.The theme of the book seems to be-Muqtada says,"I don't need help from Iran or the rest of the world to destroy what's left of Iraq circa 2008.I can devastate Iraq all by myself." The first 112 pages of the book are devoted to the history of the Shias in Iraq and the surrounding region and their conflicts over power and influence with the Sunnis. You can't help but get a "desert culture" (no water)!!feeling for the Shias with all of the harsh laws. At the same time the Shias promote legislation and programs designed for the "poor masses",even at times advocating socialistic ideas.A complex combination of austere restrictions mixed with generous giveaway benefits for the "people"?.It somewhat takes the wind out of the sails of the American victory over Iraq in 1991 when one finds out the Iraqi Army(EXCEPT THE REPUBLICAN GUARD) was 80% Shiate and had largely deserted Kuwait well before "Desert Storm".In short the Shias have never wanted any part of Saddams government and they comprised about 60% of his people. The author potrays Muqtada as chaemeleonlike,that is able to adapt different political stances from extreme violence to Ghandilike peacefull resistance.
The latter part of the book goes into the Shia infighting with Muqtada (so far!!) rising to the top of the body count of the suicide bombings between the Shi'ites and the Sunni.Any pro-Western Shia Ayatollahs thus far have had "most unfortunate accidents",loosely(or strongly) linked to Muqtada's crowd.Muqtada inherited his position through family relations and marriages and numerous members of his family were imprisoned and murdered under Saddams' reign.
Is Muqtada a pawn of Iran? The answer is a mild yes and a strong no.Undoubtedly some of his equipment and ideologies are direct Iranian exports but Muqtada tries not to dip too far into the Iranian well.
The verdict on Muqtada's mixture of theocracy and politics is far from final.Good history as I've often heard isn't written until 10 years after the event.This book however looks like a good example of history repeating itself.I'm not holding my breath how this story is going to play out,probably another return to the middle ages ala Afghanistan.At least from the read of this credible work.The author offers a few sentences toward the end of the book about"missed opportunites for peace in Iraq",and offers a solution or two but it doesn't distract from the story as he tells it.right now it seems like Muqtada is at the head of the Shi'ite attempt to remove the Sunni from all the important political posts in Iraq.The Sunnis are not going peacefully.
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on July 16, 2016
While the book is filled with lots of historical information, it is very difficult to read.
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