YouTube video

The Real News Analyst Pepe Escobar introduces Sadr in his own words with clips from a rare interview with Al Jazeera.

Patrick Cockburn, author of the book Muqtada, tells Pepe Escobar that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s recent military offensive against al-Sadr may be an attempt to control the outcome of provisional elections to be held this fall, which al-Sadr and his allies are likely to win. Cockburn concludes a new phase in the war may have started, where large sections of Shia militias enter the fight against US occupation.

Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: The Real Story, with senior news editor of The Real News Network, Paul Jay.

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Last week, the battle of Basra came to a pause when a deal brokered by Iran included Muqtada al-Sadr, the inspirational leader of the Mahdi Army, calling on the militias to withdraw. But in the past few days Iraq government forces, supported by US troops and air power, turned their guns on Sadr City. This is a section of Baghdad where close to 3 million impoverished Shia live. It’s a stronghold of support for al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army. In the recent fighting, hundreds of people have been killed, including many civilians. Saturday, in what could be a real defining moment of the US occupation in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, through a spokesman, issued a stern warning:


NASSAR AL-RUBAI, SPOKESMAN FOR AL-SADR BLOCK IN NAJAF (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): If the government does not refrain and does not leash the militias that have penetrated it, we will announce an open war until liberation.


The reason for al-Sadr’s move has been reported by The Real News. The people of Sadr City are outraged that their communication with the rest of Baghdad is being cut off, civilians are being killed, and the giant slums turned into a gulag.


ABBAS FADHIL, LOCAL RESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): I fully support Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s letter. The Iraqi government and the US Army have destroyed Sadr City. They also harmed the whole Iraqi people in Basra and Sadr city.

UM HUSSEIN, LOCAL RESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Why do aircraft and missiles pound us. They destroyed our houses and our properties.


A Sadr-led Shia uprising against the US occupation could be the nightmare scenario US military leaders have been afraid of, a perfect storm made up of a united front of Shia and Sunni fighters against the US occupation and the Iraqi government. At center stage, Muqtada al-Sadr. American leaders and media have called him a thug, a terrorist, Iranian-backed one day and an Iraqi nationalist the next. But millions of Iraqis have come to believe his is the loudest voice of the impoverished masses who never shared in the oil wealth of Iraq. The US is hoping al-Sadr will make a deal. When we return, we talk to Pepe Escobar and Patrick Cockburn and try to answer the question: Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?


JAY: I’m joined now by Pepe Escobar, foreign correspondent and analyst for The Real News Network. Who is Muqtada al-Sadr?

PEPE ESCOBAR, THE REAL NEWS ANALYST: He’s a multifaceted character; he’s an incredibly complex character. But one thing we know: the future of the American occupation of Iraq is in his hands. Both Muqtada’s father and father-in-law, they were killed by the Saddam regime. As for the other powerful family in Iraq, the al-Hakim family, during Saddam they were in exile in Iran. So we have to keep this in mind all the time. The battle for power in Iraq is not only politics; it’s a family war, and it’s a class war as well. What you’re about to see is Muqtada in his own words. This is a very, very rare interview. Dick Cheney won’t agree, but make no mistake about how Muqtada and his millions of downtrodden followers see the American occupation.


Courtesy: Al Jazeera
March 29, 2008

MUQTADA AL-SADR, SHIITE CLERIC (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The second thing is that the American influence on the Iraqis is even more negative than that of the former Ba’th Party. Therefore, this was occupation, not liberation. I call it occupation. I have said in recent years: Gone is the “little Satan,” and in came the “Great Satan.”


But what is the strategic goal of Muqtada and his Mahdi Army? Make no mistake: resistance, followed by liberation.


AL-SADR: Resistance automatically appears wherever there is occupation. Allah willing, the US will be vanquished, just like it was in Vietnam.


But resistance does not mean only the Mahdi Army; it means Shiites and Sunnis working together.


AL-SADR: They are even capable of gradually liberating Iraq, Allah willing, along with some other resistance forces. Obviously, I am close to the Shiites ideologically, but politically, I am close to the Sunnis and the decisions they make.


Very important—Muqtada wants a unified Iraq, no partition.


AL-SADR: There are plans to divide Iran–to divide what has already been divided, if I may say so. The Al-Sadr movement must oppose this.


Let the Bush administration fool no one—Muqtada is not an Iranian agent. Take a look. This is how he refers to a meeting he had with the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.


AL-SADR: I told him that we share the same ideology, but that politically and militarily, I would not be an extension of Iran, and that there were negative things that Iran was doing in Iraq.


JAY: So Muqtada al-Sadr is a far more complicated man than we’re hearing in the American media.

ESCOBAR: Oh, yes, he is. And to separate the man from the myth, I spoke to Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, and he just wrote a fascinating book about Muqtada. Patrick, first question. Tell me about Muqtada the man. What kind of man is he? What forged his character?

PATRICK COCKBURN, AUTHOR: His character, I think, was formed by the fact that his father and two brothers were assassinated in 1999. Almost all his male relatives were killed by Saddam. So he’s really somebody who has survived a series of massacres under Saddam Hussein.

ESCOBAR: Is he a thinking man?

PATRICK: Oh, yes, I think so. You know, there’s a journalistic cliché that Muqtada is the renegade cleric, the maverick cleric, the firebrand cleric, or, alternatively, that somehow he’s very stupid but has become the leader of this mass movement. I think these are all myths. He grew up in a very political atmosphere as a lieutenant of his father, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, who created the Sadrist mass-movement originally in the 1990s, and he ran his father’s office, he ran his father’s magazine. So he’s very street wise. He was brought up in a very political atmosphere, and he has much more knowledge of Iraqi society at the bottom and how its politics works than most people in the present government, the present Iraqi government, who have been in exile for ten, twenty, or thirty years.

ESCOBAR: What do you make of recent observations by Petraeus and Crocker that they might consider sitting down and talking to al-Sadr?

PATRICK: Well, I think that this is a bit of propaganda. The Americans have been trying to sit down with Muqtada for quite a long time, but certainly over the last year or two; but Muqtada has always refused to speak to them. Now, initially, in the first few years of the occupation, they weren’t that interested in negotiating; now they’re very interested in negotiating, but Muqtada won’t talk to them, except about ending the occupation.

ESCOBAR: As you know very well, the official spin in the US is that the surge is a success, and the US must eliminate what they call special groups, which is also code for Mahdi Army or Mahdi Army renegade commanders. Does this have any relationship with reality? Or is it just propaganda?

PATRICK: You know, it reminds me of 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer were saying that the guerrillas who were attacking—the insurgents who were attacking the US army were just remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I think that it’s the same type of propaganda. Violence went down towards the end of last year, and then from January it’s been getting worse and worse in Baghdad. We’ve been having more and more big bombs, suicide bombs.

ESCOBAR: It’s practically certain that the Sadrists will win the October provincial elections. What happen next?

PATRICK: Well, if we have them. I mean, one of the explanations for the attack on Basra is that Nouri al-Maliki, who represents a small party, Dawa, doesn’t have much support, and his main allies, the Supreme Council, the al-Hakim family, know what will happen in the October elections unless they can get tight military control of southern Iraq. You know, if you control a city, you can probably control which way the vote’s going to go. Muqtada, from his point of view, really hasn’t wanted a direct military confrontation either with the Americans or his Shia rivals backed by the Americans since we had the big siege of Najaf in 2004. His main interest is political, to win politically. Now, al-Maliki I think will try again, but it’s evident that he can’t do it militarily unless he’s fully backed and his campaign is organized and controlled by the US Army. And the result of this—and I don’t think this is quite understood outside Iraq—is that the US is entering a second round in the war in Iraq. The first round was really with the Sunni community. That’s where the insurgents came from. Now the US is entering a second round, which is against a very large section of the Shia community.


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

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

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