The Real Muqtada al-Sadr The radical Shiite leader's armed militias hold bloody reign over Sadr City in Baghdad. Might he one day rule Iraq? Journalist Patrick Cockburn says that it's a plausible idea and breaks down why he's so influential.

The Real Muqtada al-Sadr

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, the powerful of leader of Iraq's biggest militia, the Mehdi army - a profile of Muqtada al-Sadr.

CHADWICK: First, a brief update on where things are in Iraq. And there is more fighting in the southern city of Basra. A U.S. air strike killed four Shiite militiamen, who were attacking Iraqi soldiers. The government launched an offensive last month aimed at breaking the militia's hold on the city. Many of the militiamen are loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

BRAND: The Iraqi army found that militia a lot tougher than expected, and that prompted American and British forces to come to their aid. U.S. military officials say Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's battle plan was flawed, and that his soldiers were not fully prepared to take on the well-armed militias, some of them even refused to fight.

CHADWICK: But Prime Minister al-Malaki continues to declare victory. Here he is today speaking to the European Parliament in Brussels.

President NOURI AL-MALAKI (Iraq): (Through Translator) Iraq has managed to create strong security forces, which have proven their successes in recent operations, as you've seen. These security forces have established the state's authority, and have been fighting law-breakers. They're developing as far as their training, numbers, and weapons are concerned. The more they progress, the less need for international troops in Iraq.

BRAND: Those troops came under fire again in Baghdad today, as they battled Shiite militiamen from the Mahdi army in Sadr City. Journalist Patrick Cockburn has a lot of experience with the Mahdi army and not all of it good. He recalls a moment when he was nearly killed by a group of them, who detained him as he was trying to get the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

Mr. PATRICK COCKBURN (Journalist, The Independent): I remember talking to them when they were simple guys - very, very poor, they'd had to borrow money for a bus fare to get to the front. Pious, very dangerous, killing somebody was not something that they thought was a strange thing to do. And there, they're a hundreds of thousands, millions of young men like these in Iraq.

CHADWICK: That incident came four years ago. Since then, Patrick Cockburn has written a book about this charismatic leader of the Mahdi army, the so-called radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. The book is called "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival and the Struggle for Iraq."

BRAND: Patrick Cockburn, welcome to Day to Day.

Mr. COCKBURN: Thank you.

BRAND: What is Muqtada al-Sadr like as a person, and as a leader? What are his personality traits if you will?

Mr. COCKBURN: Intelligent, politically very able, very experienced. He was his father's sort of aide, ran his office, ran his magazine. Those sort of journalistic cliches, which say he, you know - renegade or maverick. But actually has great experience of street politics. He is somebody who's lived on the edge of death for a long time. Most of his male relatives have been killed. After his father was killed, he was very lucky to stay alive. Now, people around him think of him as secretive, clever. Somebody was saying to me, you know, you can sit beside him at meetings for a long time and still not know what's going on inside his brain.

BRAND: Until recently, most Americans thought that the fighting was strictly between Shiites and Sunni. But you write, in your book, that the divisions between the intra-Shia divisions became apparent within just 24 hours after Saddam's fall in 2003, with the assassination of a prominent Shiite cleric. Many blamed that on Muqtada al-Sadr. I wonder if you can go into these divisions, and what is - what's behind them?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah. These divisions go way back. Muqtada suddenly emerged on the scene to everybody's surprise in 2003, but it shouldn't have been quite so surprising because he comes from a famous clerical family, the al-Sadrs. His father and his two brothers were assassinated by Saddam's gunmen in 1999. His father-in-law and cousin were executed by Saddam in 1980. So, this is the - was the basis of Muqtada's support. And his father had created a mass movement, a political, religious, mass movement, and Muqtada inherited that.

BRAND: So he was able to form a very powerful group, and lead millions of largely impoverished Shia, mainly in Baghdad, but actually from around the country, right?

Mr. COCKBURN: Sure, yes. I mean, he drew his support from an area of Baghdad - it's now called Sadr City. So it's sort of shantytown if you'd like. It got started in the 1950s with people coming from the countryside, people looking for jobs. They've always lived in pretty terrible conditions. But this is Muqtada's bastion.

BRAND: And early on the Americans were intent on killing or arresting Muqtada al-Sadr. Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq after the war, he actually wanted him captured dead or alive. Obviously, that didn't work. Did that just cement Muqtada's power?

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh absolutely. It was a very bizarre policy. On the one hand, Bremer was telling us and everybody else that Muqtada is potentially immensely powerful. He might be the Hitler of Iraq, and all this demonization. On the other hand, he seems to have imagined that he could be just picked up by sending some local cops around. Now, one is true, the other is true, but both can't be true. And so, when Bremer moved against Sadr, moved towards arresting him, there was a massive explosion right across southern Iraq and Baghdad. And city after city suddenly fell to Muqtada's followers. The same thing happened about a month ago in Basra.

Mr. COCKBURN: When Nouri al-Malaki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, announced he was going to crush the militias. Actually there are lots of militias in Basra, but it was just one, the Mahdi army, he went after. He said that militiamen have 72 hours to hand over their weapons to the army. And the next thing that Iraqi television viewers saw was pictures of the army - the army units handing over their weapons to the Mahdi army.

BRAND: Cause they were actually sympathizing with al-Sadr?

Mr. COCKBURN: Sure. I mean, now a lot of them have been fired from the army. But you know, will the same thing happened again? Nobody knows.

BRAND: Can you describe the relationship between Muqtada al-Sadr and Nouri al-Malaki, because both are Shiite. What is the relationship between the two men?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, Malaki wouldn't be there without the support he got from Muqtada when he was first appointed. Muqtada since has said this was a big mistake on his part. But the relationship was always kind of fraught. Muqtada felt that Malaki was trying to say nice things to him, say nice things to the Americans at the same time, playing both sides of the street. Relations now are pretty bad. Muqtada and his people feel that Malaki has betrayed them, has split the Shia community.

So the relationship couldn't be worse. But I think the government though thinks that although what happened in Basra ended badly for them that they're going to have another go at eliminating Muqtada and his supporters. Probably Muqtada's people can overcome the army, I mean, they fight very hard, they know their own areas. So if there's going to be more fighting, it's going to be with the Iraqi army backed up by the U.S., backed-up by attack helicopters, by artillery, by strike aircraft.

BRAND: But meanwhile, you have the Americans trying to make nice with Muqtada. Just last week Defense Secretary Gates and General Petraeus both made overtures to him. Petraeus called Sadr's following a legitimate political movement.

Mr. COCKBURN: Yes, but you see they say that and then say there's another part of his movement which is pro-Iranian, but then Muqtada's people say hold on a minute, you know, we all get attacked. We all get arrested. I think there's a bit of diplomacy on the part of Petraeus and Gates in that.

BRAND: Do you think that he one day would like to lead Iraq?

Mr. COCKBURN: He probably would, but I wonder if anybody could lead Iraq, you know, it's such a divided country at the moment. Would he be among those who will lead Iraq? I think that if he survives that's certain. Will he be the leader? At the moment it's doubtful because, you know, the divisions between Sunni and Shia are enormous. You know, in Baghdad there aren't many mixed areas left, so it's very difficult to believe that in the short term, even in the medium term, Iraqis will come together if they are too frightened of each other to live in the same street.

BRAND: Do you think that Muqtada al-Sadr is powerful enough to be able to, if he wanted to, bring these sides somewhat closer together and to dispel some of that fear?

Mr. COCKBURN: Potentially yes. The Shia are going to hold power in Iraq. They already do, but they have to be - restrain themselves from trying to eliminate the Sunni. They have to end the sectarian killings. In Baghdad they have to give back houses that have been taken. Now, he's probably the only person who potentially could do that because he - it's difficult for these militiamen to operate except under his name. Some people have said in the past that he doesn't really control them, but when he called a ceasefire in August last year it was obeyed. He renewed it in February. Same thing. So, at the end of the day he does control these people, and - so if there's going to be a real peace between the communities in Iraq, he's about the only one on the Shia side who can deliver.

BRAND: What role does Iran play? President Bush has said it plays a big role in backing the militias and in particular the Mahdi army. What have you found?

Mr. COCKBURN: It does, but you see the Sadrists, Muqtada's family, have traditionally been Iraqi nationalists and anti-Iranian. Then from about 2003 when he opposed the U.S. occupation, I think it was really a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and he began to move towards the Iranians. He's in Iran now. But does he trust them, do they trust him? No, not really, but I think it is a great mistake and really a very damaging mistake to think that anything the Iraqi Shia do is as pawns of the Iranians. I mean they do it because it's in their own interest. They get help from the Iranians. And as for this, you know, do the Iranians arm - do they get arms, does the Mahdi army get arms from the Iranians?

I'd have thought so, yes, but I mean, arms - as long as you have money you can get arms in Iraq. It's - that's really not a problem. That the Mahdi army has complained to be, yeah, we get - said, you know, we get arms from the Iranians, but they charge us an enormous amount of money. They don't deny it, they just complain about the price. You know, there's a peculiar situation at the moment which maybe people don't quite appreciate, which is the two governments that support the present Iraqi government most are one, the United States, and secondly Iran. There's a Shia government there, a Shia state. They just quarrel about who has most influence over their government.

BRAND: Well, Patrick Cockburn, I want to thank you very much for speaking with us today. Thank you.

Mr. COCKBURN: Thank you.

BRAND: That's Patrick Cockburn. He's a reporter for Britain's Independent newspaper. He spent many, many years covering Iraq. His new book is called "Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq." Stay with us on Day to Day from NPR News.

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