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Killing democracy in Iraq

Red Pepper invited Naomi Klein and Haifa Zangana to discuss the current situation in Iraq and its implications for the anti-war movement

December 1, 2004
8 min read

Red Pepper: Haifa, when Sami Ramadani wrote in Red Pepper about the resistance earlier this year (‘Avoiding Vietnam in Iraq‘, July 2004), he stressed the significance of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress (INFC). What role does it play now?

Haifa Zangana: All strands of Iraqi society are in the INFC: Arab nationalists, Kurdish, Turkomen, Sunni and Shiites and a women’s group. Within it are a group of Muslim clerics who’ve been key in the negotiations over the kidnappings.

My understanding, although it doesn’t admit it, is that the congress is the political wing of the armed resistance. It’s developed over the last six months, organising solidarity campaigns with Najaf or Sadr City, issuing combined statements. On the eve of Falluja it published an appeal to UN general-secretary Kofi Annan demanding an end to the attack on the city, the release of political prisoners and a withdrawal of troops to areas outside the city. In October it said it would not participate in the elections.

But there are, of course, other ways of resisting and opposing the occupation than just armed resistance. There are peaceful activities, as well: demonstrations, meetings, poetry, articles being written.

Naomi Klein: All these different forms of resistance – poetry, newspapers, sermons, non-violent protests – have been systematically shut down by the occupation. Culture has been stamped out, newspapers are being closed, protests are being fired on, and the only form of resistance left is the armed resistance.

HZ: Just taking your child to school, risking your life and their lives by just stepping out of your house, is a form of resistance. There’s a daily struggle to achieve just the ordinary things of life: electricity, water, food, taking your child to hospital.

Iraq is a very rich country – we’re sitting on oil, breathing oil – where there are women doctors and engineers qualified to work. If they want to work, however, they have to have a permit signed by a member of the political parties appointed by the Americans.

At the end of September the Americans announced the Iraqi Women’s Democracy Initiative, $10m, launched by Colin Powell. It is for the period up to the elections. The money will not go to Iraq; it will be spent on American management agencies, and will concentrate on a few women being taught self-assertiveness, leadership, and all talking about creating a new Iraq. What happened to the old Iraq?

NK: They’re using feminism and women’s issues to advance the occupation in a really dangerous way, because they are sullying the reputation of women’s issues, which could be seized upon by anti-women forces in Iraq. It is easy then to say, ‘if you are advocating women’s rights, you’re for the occupation’.

You could hear how people talked about Moqtada Sadr when I arrived. Support for him at that time was 7 or 8 per cent. But the more he was attacked, the more support grew for him, for a religious state. Combine decreasing support for secularism with the Americans marketing feminism: it’s not only a disastrous recipe for women: it’s a disastrous strategy against women.

HZ: Yes, they come with millions of dollars, while Iraqi women struggle for the most basic services and goods.

I don’t care about programmes for democracy because democracy is coming back like a joke. If you want to say a bad word about someone, you say they’re democratic. What Bush and Blair have achieved in the occupation is they’ve killed democracy.

NK: Falluja’s always called the Ba’athist hold-out, as though it has been against the occupation from the beginning. But in April 2003 parents were holding a peaceful demonstration against their school being occupied by US soldiers. Instead of treating them as peaceful demonstrators, listening to their demands and negotiating, the soldiers shot at them and killed 13 and wounded 75. That’s been repeated hundreds of times.

RP: Naomi, what do you think are the implications of all this for the anti-war movement?

NK: The anti-war movement has been extremely remiss in not supporting and defending democratic resistance in Iraq. We’ve not been there supporting their demands and expressing outrage. We could have made a difference if we’d echoed calls for direct elections in January. Now it’s a total obscenity to support elections that are being bombed into being. But in January there were 100,000 people on the streets of Baghdad calling for elections, and where were we?

Attacks on journalists are ongoing. Western journalists should be screaming blue murder at the treatment of Al-Jazeera.

HZ: And at themselves! They were embedded in Falluja, so they could not report.

NK: There should be a ban on embedding. If you look at the kidnapping of journalists, whenever someone is kidnapped and released they tell the same story: ‘They thought I was a spy. They checked, found I wasn’t and I was released.’

But it’s not just journalists who’ve been embedded: it’s those working for the NGOs. Society is being destroyed by the embedded journalist and the NGOs. What’s the difference between a spy and an embedded journalist? It’s certainly confusing if you’re a Western journalist and are dressed like a soldier& Destroying the lines between combatants and journalists and aid workers has embedded what is called ‘civil society’ into part of the war machine.

If it’s a serious anti-war movement it has to fight wars as they are being fought, and we have to move from slogans to demands. In November the Paris club [of creditor nations] signed a deal locking Iraq into a structural adjustment programme until 2008. A country under siege can’t fight that. First, it’s not happening in Iraq; it’s happening in Europe. Second, the point of doing this in a war is that you can’t fight it. This is a straightforward opportunity for clear international solidarity in line with the principles of defending the rights to national self-determination. Our responsibility is to save space for Iraqis to decide for themselves, which can’t happen if they inherit a $200 billion debt, with no reparations and all reconstruction money already spent.

There needs to be a programme, developed inside and outside Iraq. We need to deepen our discussion of what democracy means because they have taken this word ‘democracy’ and, as Haifa says, made it into a dirty word. Arundhati Roy talked of [the US] bombing Afghanistan with butter. Here they are bombing [the country] with ballots: literally, the election as a weapon of war.

HZ: The anti-war movement needs a real programme, not just a reaction to when the Americans launch another attack. Iraqis are defending themselves and opposing the occupation in various ways, and are facing a period of 20 years or longer of occupation.

It’ll be another 20 or 30 years of struggle for complete independence. The question is: what sort of relationship will there be between the anti-war movement and the Iraqi resistance?

RP: How important are the anti-war campaigns run by relatives of coalition soldiers?

NK: This is a difficult thing to say, but it’s important that America brings in the draft. It doesn’t have sufficient numbers of troops to continue the occupation, and you see this the way it’s shifting forces around the country.

There’s presently a poverty draft in the US. People treated as disposable in the culture, the poor, those shut out of education, immigrants without a green card and who need to join up to get immigration status, are these who are dying. The elite of the country doesn’t know anyone in Iraq. A draft brings the war into the living rooms of the nation.

It makes it more important for other coalition countries to get their troops out. A dozen countries have pulled or are pulling their troops out. A strategy for the anti-war movement must be to try and break the rest of the coalition. It’s important that we isolate the US. It’s their unilateralist policy and they shouldn’t be able to spread it around.

There should also be a campaign against mercenary soldiers, which is the other way the US is insulated from the draft.

HZ: It’s important, too, to be emphasising and linking the campaigns on depleted uranium and Gulf War Syndrome. They are indiscriminate in their effects on both occupiers and occupied.

And I think the impeachment process is important. We should support the World Tribunal on Iraq. Politicians have to be made to be accountable.

NK: Using the language of morality we have to speak about the real victims of war. In the US elections we were unable to speak about Iraqi victims: Abu Ghraib or Sadr City. The language of faith was not answered by the language of morality. It concerns me that many important progressives in the US focus on the fact that the elections were stolen. Well maybe, but if Bush won – why? The electoral system is, of course, ridiculously opaque.

HZ: Well, if you think that about the US, wait for the January elections in Iraq.

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