Cockburn talks to The Real News Analyst Pepe Escobar about the disconnect between the reality of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s resistance to the US occupation and the picture being painted in the media, and in the halls of Washington. He argues that the US underestimated the strength of Iraqi nationalism when it invaded Iraq, causing US military commanders to follow a wayward path in their efforts to occupy the country. Cockburn also talks about the seemingly improbable “power sharing” going on in Iraq between the US and Iran, as evidenced by the recent ceasefire between Iraqi troops and Sadr’s Mehdi Army, a ceasefire that was brokered by Iran.


Story Transcript

AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced journalists covering the Iraq war. He has recently published an authoritative account of the life and politics of Muqtada al-Sadr, the most important opposition leader in the country. Cockburn argues that the Iraq war has entered a new phase of the conflict between two sections of the Shia community, one led by the al-Hakim family, which represents the more affluent Shia elite aligned with the United States, and the other section led by Muqtada, who represents the poor and the downtrodden and is deeply opposed to US domination. Pepe Escobar, analyst for The Real News, interviewed Patrick Cockburn recently. The first part of this interview was featured in our piece “Will Sadr declare open war?”

PEPE ESCOBAR, THE REAL NEWS ANALYST: How would you make a parallel between the Sadr family and the al-Hakim family, and their attitudes, and what they did during Saddam?

PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: I mean, the split really was that the al-Sadr family stayed on in Iraq. And their accusation against the al-Hakim was that they went to Iran, they were puppets of the Iranians. The al-Hakims’ political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was set up on Iranian initiative in 1982—this was during the Iran-Iraq war—because the Iranians thought if they defeated Saddam on the battlefield, they’d need an Iraqi government to install. So al-Hakim were very dependent on the Iranians and probably still are. Nobody quite knows what their relationship is.

ESCOBAR: Okay. This leads us to the relationship between the Sadrists and Iran. The spin is that al-Sadr is basically a surrogate of Iranian interests. How do you deconstruct this?

COCKBURN: The Sadrist family was anti-Iranian, were Iraqi nationalists. And the most important political fact about Muqtada is that he’s been anti-occupation from the beginning. The Sadrists don’t personally have very good relations with the Iranians, and vice versa. The idea that they’re pawns of the Iranians I think is not only incorrect but I think is a really poisonous idea.

ESCOBAR: How do you explain, Patrick, that American political elites, and the media as well, they always underestimated Muqtada al-Sadr’s importance?

COCKBURN: I think they underestimated the strength of Iraqi nationalism, the extent to which the occupation was unpopular from the beginning. I think they were also misled by other Iraqi exiles. It’s been something they did from the beginning. Paul Bremer, the US envoy—viceroy, really—of Iraq had two theories about Muqtada. One was to say he was a potential Hitler of great power, and the other thing was to believe that he could be arrested by just sending around a few Iraqi policemen. But, of course, as we all know, it didn’t happen that way. You know, immediately they tried to arrest him or arrest his aides—the whole of southern Iraq exploded.

ESCOBAR: Pentagon generals in 2004, they actually wanted to kill Muqtada.

COCKBURN: Yes, they said at the beginning of the year, you know, that he would either be a prisoner or be killed, and later on in that year, when Muqtada was trying to negotiate with the Iraqi government, the chief government negotiator, the national security adviser, Muwafaq al-Rubaie, told me that he was quite convinced that the Americans had tried to kill Muqtada.

ESCOBAR: Do you see the possibility of Muqtada making or breaking the US presidential elections, depending on his next—?

COCKBURN: He could do it. After all, McCain relaunched his political career when he went to Baghdad, and endorsed the so-called surge. He went to a market, [“SHORZ-jer”] Market in the center of Baghdad, and said that the American people were not learning the truth about Iraq, that things were getting better. He was back three or four weeks ago in Baghdad when I was there. He didn’t go back to the same market, because now it’s under the control of the Mehdi Army. As we get closer to the election, it will depend on Muqtada, it will depend on the Iraqi government. And the latest round of fighting in Basra and Baghdad was the result of an attack by the Iraqi government and the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suddenly sending 15,000 troops to Basra and trying to eliminate the Mehdi Army. They said it was all militias, but actually they only focused on the Mehdi Army. If they do that again, there’s going to be a lot of fighting. This will not look good in the US.

ESCOBAR: How would you place Muqtada as a crucial political figure in the Middle East, in the wider, in the big picture in the next few years? And suppose we have a Democratic president in the US. He’ll be forced, sort of, to sit down and talk directly to Muqtada.

COCKBURN: Yes, I think so. I mean, when the Americans decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, two things were inevitable. One, that the Shia in Iraq would take power, ’cause they’re 60 percent of the population. Saddam ran a Sunni regime. And secondly, religious parties were going to win that election. And Iran would become more influential in Iraq, because Saddam was their big enemy, and they’re also Shia. But there are limits to what the Iranians can do in Iraq. So, ultimately, I think this war is going to end when the Americans talk to those who have real power, which is Muqtada and the Iranians. I’m sure they will at some stage, but we might have an awful lot of people killed between now and then.

ESCOBAR: Patrick, based on your five years of experience, okay, and everything that you lived through during Saddam’s era in Iraq, do you realistically see the Americans leaving Iraq for good?

COCKBURN: I think ultimately they will. My only doubt—and this is what worries a lot of Iraqis—is a growing sort of unspoken condominium, a sort of sharing of power, between the Americans and the Iranians in Iraq. It sounds strange because they attack each other in public, but, for instance, recently, fighting in Basra was ended when a delegation of Shia here from Baghdad went to Qom to talk to– holy city of Qom in Iran–to talk to Muqtada and to talk to the head of the Iranian Revolutionary guard, somebody who the Americans regard have denounced as a terrorist. Iraqi politicians in the government are always trying to encourage the Iranians and the Americans to talk, but to talk in the presence of the Iraqi government. They’re always worried that there’s going to be a sort of side deal between Iran and America which would leave them both very strong in Iraq and Iraq without much independence.

ESCOBAR: And the Sadrists will probably [be] part of the government after the October elections. And so the equation will certainly change.

COCKBURN: Yes, but Sadrists remain Iraqi nationalists. The US policy has always been contradictory from the beginning, that they want an Iraqi government that somehow will be completely legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis and at the same time will obey every instruction it ever gets from Washington. And they’re a bit surprised when that government is regarded as simply a front for America. But if you want a legitimate government in Baghdad, then the Sadrists will have to be part of it.

ESCOBAR: Would you say that in numbers they will be able to control Parliament?

COCKBURN: It’s a little difficult when you have the Kurdish section of the Parliament as well. But one former Shia minister was saying to me, you know, the Shia are the majority of Iraqis, and the majority of the Shia are Sadrists. That’s why it’s so ludicrous and counter-effective for Nouri al-Maliki and perhaps the Americans to think that they can simply eliminate Muqtada and pretend that the Sadrists don’t exist and that they can be politically marginalized.

AIJAZ AHMAD, SENIOR NEWS ANALYST: Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced journalists covering the Iraq war. He has recently published an authoritative account of the life and politics of Muqtada al-Sadr, the most important opposition leader in the country. Cockburn argues that the Iraq war has entered a new phase of the conflict between two sections of the Shia community, one led by the al-Hakim family, which represents the more affluent Shia elite aligned with the United States, and the other section led by Muqtada, who represents the poor and the downtrodden and is deeply opposed to US domination. Pepe Escobar, analyst for The Real News, interviewed Patrick Cockburn recently. The first part of this interview was featured in our piece “Will Sadr declare open war?”

PEPE ESCOBAR, THE REAL NEWS ANALYST: How would you make a parallel between the Sadr family and the al-Hakim family, and their attitudes, and what they did during Saddam?

PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: I mean, the split really was that the al-Sadr family stayed on in Iraq. And their accusation against the al-Hakim was that they went to Iran, they were puppets of the Iranians. The al-Hakims’ political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was set up on Iranian initiative in 1982—this was during the Iran-Iraq war—because the Iranians thought if they defeated Saddam on the battlefield, they’d need an Iraqi government to install. So al-Hakim were very dependent on the Iranians and probably still are. Nobody quite knows what their relationship is.

ESCOBAR: Okay. This leads us to the relationship between the Sadrists and Iran. The spin is that al-Sadr is basically a surrogate of Iranian interests. How do you deconstruct this?

COCKBURN: The Sadrist family was anti-Iranian, were Iraqi nationalists. And the most important political fact about Muqtada is that he’s been anti-occupation from the beginning. The Sadrists don’t personally have very good relations with the Iranians, and vice versa. The idea that they’re pawns of the Iranians I think is not only incorrect but I think is a really poisonous idea.

ESCOBAR: How do you explain, Patrick, that American political elites, and the media as well, they always underestimated Muqtada al-Sadr’s importance?

COCKBURN: I think they underestimated the strength of Iraqi nationalism, the extent to which the occupation was unpopular from the beginning. I think they were also misled by other Iraqi exiles. It’s been something they did from the beginning. Paul Bremer, the US envoy—viceroy, really—of Iraq had two theories about Muqtada. One was to say he was a potential Hitler of great power, and the other thing was to believe that he could be arrested by just sending around a few Iraqi policemen. But, of course, as we all know, it didn’t happen that way. You know, immediately they tried to arrest him or arrest his aides—the whole of southern Iraq exploded.

ESCOBAR: Pentagon generals in 2004, they actually wanted to kill Muqtada.

COCKBURN: Yes, they said at the beginning of the year, you know, that he would either be a prisoner or be killed, and later on in that year, when Muqtada was trying to negotiate with the Iraqi government, the chief government negotiator, the national security adviser, Muwafaq al-Rubaie, told me that he was quite convinced that the Americans had tried to kill Muqtada.

ESCOBAR: Do you see the possibility of Muqtada making or breaking the US presidential elections, depending on his next—?

COCKBURN: He could do it. After all, McCain relaunched his political career when he went to Baghdad, and endorsed the so-called surge. He went to a market, [“SHORZ-jer”] Market in the center of Baghdad, and said that the American people were not learning the truth about Iraq, that things were getting better. He was back three or four weeks ago in Baghdad when I was there. He didn’t go back to the same market, because now it’s under the control of the Mehdi Army. As we get closer to the election, it will depend on Muqtada, it will depend on the Iraqi government. And the latest round of fighting in Basra and Baghdad was the result of an attack by the Iraqi government and the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suddenly sending 15,000 troops to Basra and trying to eliminate the Mehdi Army. They said it was all militias, but actually they only focused on the Mehdi Army. If they do that again, there’s going to be a lot of fighting. This will not look good in the US.

ESCOBAR: How would you place Muqtada as a crucial political figure in the Middle East, in the wider, in the big picture in the next few years? And suppose we have a Democratic president in the US. He’ll be forced, sort of, to sit down and talk directly to Muqtada.

COCKBURN: Yes, I think so. I mean, when the Americans decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, two things were inevitable. One, that the Shia in Iraq would take power, ’cause they’re 60 percent of the population. Saddam ran a Sunni regime. And secondly, religious parties were going to win that election. And Iran would become more influential in Iraq, because Saddam was their big enemy, and they’re also Shia. But there are limits to what the Iranians can do in Iraq. So, ultimately, I think this war is going to end when the Americans talk to those who have real power, which is Muqtada and the Iranians. I’m sure they will at some stage, but we might have an awful lot of people killed between now and then.

ESCOBAR: Patrick, based on your five years of experience, okay, and everything that you lived through during Saddam’s era in Iraq, do you realistically see the Americans leaving Iraq for good?

COCKBURN: I think ultimately they will. My only doubt—and this is what worries a lot of Iraqis—is a growing sort of unspoken condominium, a sort of sharing of power, between the Americans and the Iranians in Iraq. It sounds strange because they attack each other in public, but, for instance, recently, fighting in Basra was ended when a delegation of Shia here from Baghdad went to Qom to talk to– holy city of Qom in Iran–to talk to Muqtada and to talk to the head of the Iranian Revolutionary guard, somebody who the Americans regard have denounced as a terrorist. Iraqi politicians in the government are always trying to encourage the Iranians and the Americans to talk, but to talk in the presence of the Iraqi government. They’re always worried that there’s going to be a sort of side deal between Iran and America which would leave them both very strong in Iraq and Iraq without much independence.

ESCOBAR: And the Sadrists will probably [be] part of the government after the October elections. And so the equation will certainly change.

COCKBURN: Yes, but Sadrists remain Iraqi nationalists. The US policy has always been contradictory from the beginning, that they want an Iraqi government that somehow will be completely legitimate in the eyes of Iraqis and at the same time will obey every instruction it ever gets from Washington. And they’re a bit surprised when that government is regarded as simply a front for America. But if you want a legitimate government in Baghdad, then the Sadrists will have to be part of it.

ESCOBAR: Would you say that in numbers they will be able to control Parliament?

COCKBURN: It’s a little difficult when you have the Kurdish section of the Parliament as well. But one former Shia minister was saying to me, you know, the Shia are the majority of Iraqis, and the majority of the Shia are Sadrists. That’s why it’s so ludicrous and counter-effective for Nouri al-Maliki and perhaps the Americans to think that they can simply eliminate Muqtada and pretend that the Sadrists don’t exist and that they can be politically marginalized.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.