March 16, 2016 | The Wall Street Journal

After Saddam Was Hanged

Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, no voice arguing for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had greater moral weight than that of Kanan Makiya. As Dexter Filkins put it in a 2007 New York Times Magazine profile of the Iraqi-American intellectual, he “made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do—to destroy an evil regime and rescue a people from their nightmare of terror and suffering. Not for oil, Makiya argued, and not for some superweapons hidden in the sand, but to satisfy an obligation to our fellow human beings.”

Mr. Makiya, a secular Shiite who came to the United States in the 1960s to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had spent years reflecting on Iraq’s slide into savage sectarianism. All his work beginning with the “Republic of Fear” (1989), his seminal account of Saddam’s Iraq, has had an overarching theme: that the culpability for the Arab world’s barbaric predicament was not primarily the fault of foreigners, though they weren’t guiltless, but that of its ruling elites. It was they who bulldozed civil society, creating ever more ghastly military regimes that have now collapsed into Sunni-versus-Shiite slaughterhouses.

The enormity of the chaos that followed the American invasion paralyzed Mr. Makiya’s pen. He lived in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 and watched things unravel, but wrote little. With “The Rope,” he has broken his silence. The novel is unrelenting in its thinly camouflaged condemnations, particularly of the country’s Shiite leaders. Mr. Makiya loves Iraq—or the idea of what a new Iraq could be—and his rage and despair at the brutality that has seized his country comes through on every page.

The novel’s central character is an unnamed Shiite, who becomes deeply involved in the Mahdi Army, the militant movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, which is at the forefront of fighting both Americans and Sunni Iraqis. We meet him dressed in the “freshly minted” uniforms of the new Iraqi Army, standing on the jury-rigged platform where Saddam Hussein is set to be hanged. He looks down at the mob, “drunk with excitement and thirsty for blood.”

“When the Tyrant dropped through the trapdoor, wildly bucking his bound feet, fighting to the very last millisecond of his life, I saw myself as though for the first time, with my entire being. Something in me had rotted.” No one “could reverse the stench I now emitted.” The young man’s profound unease with the crudeness of the execution starts him on a journey back through time, to his childhood in Najaf, the holiest of Iraq’s cities, the final resting place of the Caliph Ali, the founding father of Shiite Islam.

“There is nothing like a holy city, and pious visitors, to make a city’s normal residents thoroughly unholy and consistently impious,” Mr. Makiya writes of Najaf. The city is the location of the novel’s defining crime: the real-life murder in April 2003 of Abd al-Majid al-Khoei, the son of Iraq’s most influential cleric of the 20th century, Abul Qassim al-Khoei.

Majid—in reality and in the novel—returned to his birthplace from exile in London ahead of the invading American troops. Mr. Makiya suggests that he hoped to help strengthen the moderate forces within the all-critical Shiite clergy. He was savagely knifed to death by unknown assailants, attacked near the threshold of Ali’s shrine. Majid’s killing—how he died, why he was murdered, who lied about his death, who ignored it—foreshadows, in Mr. Makiya’s telling, the deterioration of Iraq after Saddam.

Mr. Makiya‘s young narrator happens to discover Majid’s sliced up body in an alleyway. He doesn’t know who the bloodied man is. His uncle, an important man in Sadr’s organization, insists he is “an American agent” because he was “carrying dollars, lots of them.” But there were no dollars on the mangled body—only 100 stab wounds.

The novel explores the bloody divisions within the prestigious clerical families of the Shiite world and, more fundamentally, between a Shiism of mercy and a Shiism of revenge. The secrets of the young man’s family are slowly revealed and finally bring him face to face with Saddam, sardonic and still commanding, in a jail cell waiting for the rope. The young man learns that he is still living in Saddam’s ruins, “a nation of sick and spite-filled men, of selfish men, of hollow men, of treacherous men who would whisper ill of their fathers and brothers, and sell them to the devil for a pittance.”

Mr. Makiya’s writing is sublime when his subject is the slide from decency to evil. His depiction of the descent into barbarism of Haider, one of the central character’s closest friends, is as good a portrait as we are likely to get of Iraq’s post-Saddam savagery. “Fighting Sunni terror transformed him,” the young man reflects after Haider becomes the most notorious of the Mahdi Army’s killers. “His name popped up whenever a new pile of Sunni corpses was found with holes drilled into their hands and feet, and especially when the coup de grace took the form of a hole drilled all the way through the victim’s skull.”

Despite such darkness, “The Rope” leaves the reader with a sliver of hope that individual acts of dignity matter. “Love, so long as it hides, feels itself in great danger, and is only reassured by exposing itself to risk,” the young man’s father writes to his wife and son, knowing that a hideous death soon awaits him.

“The Rope” is not a perfect novel: Mr. Makiya’s writing is sometimes in tension with a novelist’s imperative to show, not tell. I suspect that he chose to use fiction as a vehicle as it spares his friends—if not himself—from the direct criticism that would have been unavoidable in a work of nonfiction. But the book is an indispensable guide into the “warehouses of cruelty” of the modern Middle East and gives us a better idea of why Iraq failed after being liberated from a tyrant, and why Sunnis and Shiites now so eagerly kill each other.

Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.