The U.S. invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003. Just twenty-three days later, a 40-year old Shi’a cleric named Abdul Majid al-Khoei died of stab-would at a mosque in Najaf. Najaf is the third-holiest city of Shi’a Islam and, in Iraq, a kind of center of Shi’a politics. The man was the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim al-Khoei. He was a moderate and revered leader of Shi’ites. For convenience I’ll call the father the Elder Khoei, the murdered son the Younger. The Elder was famed for opposing Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempts to unite all Shi’a jurists and was therefore viewed as a barrier to Khomeini’s ambitions to dominate the entire Shi’a world. Later, when, during the first Iraq war, George H.W. Bush called for a Shi’a uprising, the Elder Khoei published a fatwa calling for humane behavior by his followers and forbade vengeful attacks. Saddam Hussein arrested him when the U.S. did not quite follow through that first time around; the Elder was later released but died in 1992 while still under house arrest.
His son escaped and set up a resistance movement in London. No sooner had the U.S. invaded Iraq and, this time, signaled its intention to do the whole job, the Younger Khoei hastened to return to Iraq again and, no sooner arrived, began setting up a structure to organize the Shi’a clerics and, thus, taking up his father’s mantle. But he was stabbed to death—and because of that event, and because a young cleric named Muqtada al-Sadr was implicated in this assassination, I became aware of al-Sadr quite early and, in the process, aware also of the great complexities hidden in that social realm.
Al-Sadr comes from a rival section of the Shi’a clergy, his own father also a famed but dead leader, Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr. But the al-Sadrs represent a tradition less inclined to favor benign approaches whether to conflict or to the West. The killing of the Younger Khoei was a straightforward grab of power. And, indeed, soon after that, al-Sadr emerged as the defacto internal opposition to the American presence in Iraq. Patrick Cockburn, in a book entitled Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, gives us al-Sadr’s views. Asked what he thought of Saddam’s fall from power, Muqtada said: “The smaller devil has gone, but the bigger devil has come.” Muqtada never deviated from this course; never cooperated with the occupying power; raised, deployed, and controlled his Mahdi army; and but for his support today’s Prime Minister, al-Maliki, could never have taken power. Therefore, it seems to me, the future of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr are linked like Siamese twins—unless another assassin’s knife severs the two. But we shall see.
I come from a small country regularly overrun and dominated by bigger powers. Not that I experienced this, but I was steeped from childhood on in history of a certain flavor. When I see invaded countries’ leaders cooperating with us, names like Quisling rise spontaneously in my mind. And the less modern and commercialized the invaded culture is, the more often it has been oppressed from above—as Iraq was by the Ottomans, the British, the Americans and, inside that country, the Shi’ites by the Sunnis—the more I think a visceral resistance to the invader or oppressor must be given weight, at least in looking to the future. No. Democracy and the Hidden Hand are not at all innately loved objects of aspiration by traditional populations. The Civil War was singular—and happened too long ago to have left its marks deeply enough in the American soul—hence a certain naïveté permits us to engage, without much thought, in nation-building ventures. So let us watch Iraq evolve post December 2011 and learn something from the experience.