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Who is Moqtada al-Sadr?

He is the 'most important and most surprising figure' of the Iraq war.

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Nine-hundred-and-twenty-five people have died in the latest assault on militiamen tied to the 34-year-old Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Two-thousand-six-hundred-and-five have been wounded. That's a staggering toll, even amid the Iraq war's devastation. What's more unsettling is that those numbers, according to Baghdad sources, are from just over a month in one part of Iraq: Sadr City.

But the overall toll in the ongoing siege on Sadr's loosely organized Mahdi Army is far greater.

Who is Moqtada al-Sadr? A firebrand cleric? An anti-American agitator? An Iranian pawn? Those are some of the ways we hear him described in the Western press. Indeed, he has been fiercely against the American occupation since the beginning of the war. But as Patrick Cockburn points out in his timely new book, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq, none of these labels explains the pivotal role he is playing in Iraq. (Note to readers: The Monitor uses a different English spelling of Moqtada's name than does Cockburn.)

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