The fire sometime

Baghdad is choking in a 57 degree heat and a sweltering sense of fear. Water shortages and pollution are dehydrating the city and diseases such as diphtheria, hepatitis and typhoid are rife. Raw green sewage bubbles in the streets.

September 1, 2003
10 min read

Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.

Electricity is still a six hour daily luxury for most. Blackouts plunge entire neighborhoods into darkness and gunshots and explosions fill the night, every night. The only police on the beat are car-crammed daytime traffic cops, armed with nothing more than whistles.

At the same time, Baghdadi women are virtually imprisoned in their homes, fearful for their safety and forbidden from going out by their parents or husbands. Street kidnappings and rape, which had previously been unheard of in Iraq, are widespread. Everybody knows someone who has been a victim of violent crime in the last four months.

Based on the comparative July 2002 statistics, Occupation Watch reports a 47-fold increase in violent crime in Iraq. The Al Kindi Hospital in Baghdad says there has been a 150-fold increase in admissions of patients with injuries inflicted through violent crime.

Ask any Baghdadi how they feel about the ‘newly stabilised Iraq’ and they’ll reel off the same exasperated mantra: ‘There’s no water, no electricity, no safety, no work, and no freedom’.

The US promise of liberation rings hollow. The Iraqi Governing Council selected by the US Administration contains 25 Iraqi and Kurdish figures, over half of whom are expats, hand-picked by ‘Ambassador’ Paul Bremer.

The occupation troops are not accountable to Iraqis. Stories proliferate of unnerved US soldiers shooting at civilians in cars when they don”t stop at checkpoints.

Any attacks on US forces – real or imaginary – are met with indiscriminate fire. On August 8, 6 civilians were killed when soldiers panicked and started shooting at civilian vehicles during a power cut in Sullaikh, North Baghdad.

Six thousand Iraqis are still being held without charge in Baghdad Airport. UN staff are on the highest state of alert and NGOs such as the Red Cross, Medicine Sans Frontieres and Handicap International have been targeted by the resistance

Meanwhile, tanks and humvees enforce a curfew between 11pm-5am. Curfew breakers have been stripped naked and their backs painted with ‘Ali Baba’. It does not feel like liberation.

Five Iraqi newspapers have been shut since April. Three thousand Iraqi teachers have been expelled from their schools, kindergartens, and universities in a “de-Baathification” drive. But Ba”ath party membership was all but compulsory for positions of authority in the last regime.

Add all this up and you have a country seething with frustration, confusion and a deep-seated sense of mistrust. Not the ideal conditions for an autonomous social liberation movement to flourish. Or is it?

Standing just 5 ft tall, Yanar Mohammed, 41, is an unlikely rabble rouser. Yet her name has been mentioned in Mosques in Thaowra City, Kirkuk and Nassiriya and a fatwa may be just months away.

As well as being a mother, trained architect, and black belt in karate, Yanar is the founder of the Organisation of Women’s’ Freedom in Iraq (OWFI).

With a readership of several thousands, the group’s paper ‘Equality’ is mounting a challenge to political Islam, particularly over the increase in honour killings (legalised by the Baath regime in 1990) and forced veiling. There is much to fight for.

In the 1980s, the increasing brutality of the regime reversed many of the freedoms won by women in the struggles of the 1960s and 70s.

In the early 80s, women worked, moved freely unveiled and constituted 40% of the public sector workforce. By the late 80s, the economic depression following the Iran-Iraq war and rise of the Ba”ath-cultivated religious Right saw women’s rights decimated.

The General Union of Women in Iraq, the only women’s group allowed to function in Iraq, was affiliated to the Ba”ath party. In 2000, it contributed to the regime’s ‘Faithfulness Campaign’ by providing it with the names and addresses of women assumed to be prostitutes. More than 200 women were consequently beheaded and strung up outside their homes naked, in a campaign of state-sanctioned honour killings.

Today, Yanar says OWFI’s key aim is “to organise women and forward their demands for better security measures to the authorities. To stop the abductions and at the same time lead political protests that ask for a secular government with civil laws based on full equality between men and women, not Sharia.”

OWFI has repeatedly asked American forces for support and protection but the only reply has been to look to NGOs for help.

OFWI is looking to other forces, Yanar says, “The broad-based masses of women that are resisting the dark forces imposing on them in this society, and the groups which believe profoundly in the equality of men and women”. So far, OFWI’s most notable ally is the Worker Communist Party of Iraq.

The WCP-Iraq was secretly founded in 1993, under the political leadership of the ‘Iranian Marx,’ Mansur Hekmat. It is currently prioritizing the construction of embryonic worker-controlled trade unions.

Issham Shukri, a bright eyed and bearded intellectual dynamo organised the party’s Canadian branch after leaving Iraq in despair five years ago. He returned recently and is impressed with the potential for open discussion in Iraq today.

“It seems more genuine, more human, more normal,” he tells me. “Under the previous regime, we didn”t have the luxury of organising openly due to extreme brutality.”

Even so, he sees the levels of political consciousness among workers as ‘very low’ because, “The ruling classes in Iraq have done so much damage to the people, whether through Saddam or the Americans. Their support of the Iraqi bourgeoisie through sanctions, wars, destruction and dragging the society into political Islam and tribalism have paralysed the working class here.”

Where the WCP-Iraq comes in, he says, is “to start mobilising working people, women, the unemployed and all those who have no interest in the maintenance of capitalism in Iraq”. But the party’s rejection of Political Islam has earned it some powerful enemies.

In July, the party’s headquarters in Nassiriya were attacked and set alight by members of Al-hawza Al-elmyia, a Shia party with widespread support across Iraq. Four WCP-I members were kidnapped from the office; two were subsequently tortured.

Italian Carabinieri officers stood by as the men were dragged down the street, before arresting the party members still in the office.

But how do workers organise when there is so little work around? Ask the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq, whose membership stands at 150,000 and rising. Founded after the fall of the Ba”ath regime, the Union’s central demands are: jobs for the unemployed; social security benefits of $100 per month and responsibility for the distribution of food-aid.

Currently, it ends up on market stalls rather than peoples homes because of mafia gangs and haphazardly bureaucratised distribution chains. The UUI recently won responsibility for aid distribution in Nassiriya.

It is also maintaining a continous sit-in protest opposite the US Occupation HQ (formerly, a Baath party secret police headquarters). Up to 500 people a day have protested despite repression from the US Forces.

On the second day of protest, 77 UUI members were arrested. They were crammed into cells ringed with barbed wire, deprived of sleep, water and food, and beaten and humiliated.

One of them was Qasim Hadi, a former garment factory worker and the Union’s General Secretary. He says there were many reasons to form the UUI: “The wars, Iran, Kuwait, 13-years of sanctions, and now, this last war has left millions of Iraqis unemployed.”

“We realised that we had to defend our rights. After months of no work or food – activists have been passing out from hunger and dehydration at UUI demonstrations – we needed a solution.”

That solution involves self-activity. “It’s important for people to get out and protest, to speak the truth and demand our rights, whether from the Americans, or any Iraqi “government”. We must make them pay. It’s not America’s money, it’s ours and they must give it to us’.

However, one group which sees the US troops as liberators appears destined to strongly influence any new civil society: the Free Iraqi Prisoners Society.

The Fips was launched post-regime, to search for missing Iraqi prisoners of Saddam, the disappeared, and provide support to their families. They were the first group to search for mass grave sites and have uncovered 65 so far.

According to the group’s leader, Ibrahim al-Idressi, between six and eight million Iraqis were slaughtered by the Baath dictatorship over a period of 35 years. Shias, Kurds, Iranians, Sunni’s, Ashuri Christians, Communists and Kuwaitis, in that order, made up the largest groups of victims.

The society, in co-operation with US Forces, helps administer the legal side of the operation. “We are lobbying for former political prisoners to enter the new government and ministries and become more politically involved,” Ibrahim tells me. “We eventually want to create a national court system.”

When asked where Fips fits in with the emerging social movements in Iraqi society, Ibrahim becomes suspicious and confused. The concept of civil society or even a social movement is literally foreign.

There was no society before April, only the regime. One in three Iraqis was employed by the security forces. This prevented effective social organization and generated decades of distrust of neighbours, workmates and even families.

Possession of a mobile phone, satellite dish or typewriter – any tool of social communication – was punishable by death. Iraqi society today is still blighted by the consequences.

It will take time for new forms of social organization to emerge. People will need to interact, dialogue and break the racist myths that divide Sunnis from Shias, Palestinians from Iraqis, Kurds from everybody else.

Faced with a pervasive sense of insecurity, many Iraqis are becoming nostalgic for the old dictatorship. They will clench their hand into a fist and extol the virtues of a ‘strong government’. “Iraqi people need to be controlled,” they say.

Others point out that the past four months of chaos were preventable and may even have been worked strategically to legitimize the occupation and prevent any serious political opposition from emerging.

The secular left is split between the Communist Party of Iraq (now renamed ‘the Collaboration Party of Iraq’ by critics after joining the Governing Council) and the WCP-I. The Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party are viewed as authoritarian, nationalist and concerned with advancing their own interests to the exclusion of all others.

Meanwhile, the Shia parties’ vision of an Islamic state is as hostile to the secular left’s goals as to the occupation forces’.

The expression of protest has been catalysed by the UUI, but winning basic civil rights and needs has required negotiation with – and implicit recognition of – the Occupation Authority.

The refusal of the Occupation full-stop is undefined. In a society as well-armed as Iraq, the cell-orchestrated guerilla attacks on troops could be as easily undertaken by ideologically-astute students as ex-Baathists or unhappy members of the public. Just as anyone can have their own NGO now, so too can they have their own secret militia, it seems. The results are inchoate.

Those hoping for a military and economic defeat for the US in Iraq may have to wait. Immediate needs for basic survival – and work -are occupying the agendas of the most progressive social currents at the moment. They are also forcing many of them to recognise, negotiate with, and capitulate to, the Occupation.

Which is how the Occupation forces like it. An Iraqi social movement capable of fighting for genuine liberation, as well as kicking out the Occupation, is not yet on the table.

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Ewa JasiewiczEwa Jasiewicz is a Palestine solidarity activist, union organiser and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatique Polish Edition.

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