In December 2008 I flew Royal Jordanian from Amman to Iraq’s southern city of Basra. Because of the Muslim holiday of Eid, embassies were closed; a contact in the British military promised to obtain visas for me and a colleague upon arrival. The Iraqi customs officials were offended that we did not follow procedure, but a letter from the British commander got us in. It might not have been necessary: when the five Iraqi policemen who examined luggage at the exit saw my colleague’s copy of Patrick Cockburn’s excellent book on the Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, they turned giddy. One of them kissed the picture of Muqtada’s face on the cover and asked if he could keep the book. It was not their sentiment that surprised me, but rather their comfort expressing it publicly.
Since the occupation began, Muqtada has been the most controversial public figure in Iraq. A populist anti-American leader, he came from a lineage of revolutionary Shia clerics who opposed the Saddam’s regime and who gave voice to Iraq’s poor Shia majority. Capitalizing on his slain father’s network of mosques and the family name, Muqtada and his followers, called Sadrists, seized control of Shia areas in Iraq when Baghdad fell, especially the slums of Basra and the capital. He rallied marginalized Shias against the occupation, its puppet government, and eventually against Sunni extremists as well. His movement provided social services, and his militia, Jeish al Mahdi—the Mahdi Army or JAM—fought the Americans and defended Shias from extremist Sunni terrorism.
But the Mahdi Army and its rivals eventually propagated sectarian violence, fighting in the civil war and expelling or killing innocent Sunnis. After the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra shrine, a Shia holy site, the two-year-old civil war intensified. With attacks against Sunnis escalating, the largely Shia Iraqi police often looked the other way. The bloodshed was indiscriminate. [continued…]