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A brief (but presently the only) biography of perhaps the most important figure in Iraq.
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.