It was gratifying to read that David Cameron has taken my book Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq with him as one of a number of works on current affairs to peruse during his holiday in Cornwall.
It was especially encouraging to learn that Mr Cameron wanted to know more about Iraq at a moment when many are under the quite false impression that the crisis there is at last drawing to a close. “Is it better? Is the surge working?” people keep asking me and in a certain sense, it is “better”, but only compared to the bloodbath of 2006-7. American military casualties may be down, but 851 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed last month.
As for “the surge”, the extra 30,000 US troops sent last year, it is curious that, despite claims for its great success, more American troops are needed to hold the line in Iraq today than before the surge began.
I was asked to write a book on the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by Scribner in New York in the late summer of 2006. After thinking the idea over carefully I turned it down on the grounds that it was simply too dangerous.
But, on reflection, I became more and more attracted by the idea. There have been many books on Iraq since the US invaded and overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, but most are about what Americans did in Iraq. Iraqis appear sporadically and often only as bit players. Yet, if there is one lesson I would like Mr Cameron to learn, it is that the US does not control the political weather in Iraq.
There has been something absurd about the way that John McCain and Barack Obama debate the timing and extent of a US military withdrawal as if this is an issue that is going to be settled solely by American domestic politics. Every opinion poll taken in Iraq since 2003 shows that the great majority of Iraqis outside Kurdistan oppose the occupation and want it ended. This is something else Mr Cameron should keep in mind. “The problem in southern Iraq was that we had no real friends,” an Arabic-speaking former British intelligence officer in Basra told me: “At the end of the day they all hated us.”
I would like to think that my book goes some way to explaining an Iraq that is wholly familiar to Iraqis and very unfamiliar to non-Iraqis. When Muqtada al-Sadr became one of the most powerful figures in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, American and British officials had never heard of him. But the secret of his great appeal to millions of poor Iraqi Shia was that he was heir to his father, founder of a religious and nationalist mass movement, and his father-in-law, both of whom had been murdered by Saddam Hussein.
When the US and Britain invaded Iraq, they started three wars. The first is the insurgency in the Sunni community against the American occupation; the second the struggle by the Iraqi Shia, sixty per cent of the population, allied to the Kurds, to take control of the Iraqi state, previously controlled by the Sunni; and the third a proxy war between the US and Iran about which of them is to have predominant influence in Iraq.
Blair showed little sign of understanding the nature of the conflict in Iraq. Hopefully, on reading my book, Mr Cameron will better understand what makes Iraq a political quagmire and forearm him against advisers seeking to persuade him that America’s and Britain’s venture in Iraq is finally coming right.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”