IRAQ'S CIVIL RESISTANCE
The Secular Left Opposition Stands Up
by Bill Weinberg
July 4, 2007 saw the Fred Hampton-style execution of the leader of a
popular citizen's self-defense force in Baghdad. According to the Iraq
Freedom Congress, the group Abdelhussein Saddam was associated with, a
unit of US Special Forces troops and Iraqi National Guards raided his
home in Baghdad's Alattiba neighborhood at 3:00 AM, throwing grenades in
before them -- and opening fire without warning at him and his young
daughter. The attackers took Saddam, leaving the girl bleeding on the
floor. Two days later, his body was found in the morgue at Yarmouk Hospital.
Abdelhussein had been the leader of the Safety Force, a civil patrol
organized by the IFC civil resistance coalition to protect their
communities. Like many IFC leaders, he had been an opponent of the
Saddam Hussein regime, and was imprisoned for two years in the '90s.
Head of the Safety Force since late last year, his death went unnoted by
the world media.
But on Aug. 3, some 100 activists from the Japanese anti-war group Zenko
-- an acronym for National Assembly for Peace and Democracy -- gathered
near the US embassy in Tokyo to protest the slaying. One banner read:
"Do US-Iraqi security forces promote civil rights or Big Brother
thuggery? Abdelhussein found out!"
Among those speaking were two IFC leaders who had flown in for the 37th
annual Zenko conference. IFC president Samir Adil addressed the rally:
"Because he said 'no Sunni, no Shi'ite, yes to human identity,' because
he wanted to build a civil society in Iraq without occupation, without
sectarian militias -- for that they killed Abdelhussein. They think they
can defeat the IFC, the only voice in Iraq that says yes to a free
society, yes to a nonviolent society; no to occupation, no to sectarian
gangsters. But contrary to that, after the assassination, many people
joined the IFC, we received messages of solidarity from around the
world. As long as have the support of people like you, we will never
The IFC was formed in 2005, bringing together trade unions, women's
organizations, neighborhood assemblies and student groups around two
demands: an end to the occupation, and a secular state for Iraq. Zenko's
most significant achievement over the past year has been the raising of
$400,000 which allowed the IFC to establish a satellite station, Sana TV.
Nadia Mahmood, an exile from Basra who is the chief presenter at Sana
TV's London studio, told the protesters: "We established the IFC to
oppose occupation or rule by Sunni or Shi'ite militias. That is why the US,
which says it came to Iraq to bring democracy, assassinates our leaders
and raids our offices. And that is why we must demand an end to
the occupation." Sana TV: Voice of Progressive Iraq
The protest was given extra urgency by news that another IFC figure,
Prof. Mohammed Jasam, had been killed the previous day in an ambush on
the road from Baghdad to Siwera. The killers were this time presumably
members of an as yet unidentified sectarian militia. Jasam had been a
reporter and commentator on labor issues for Sana TV, which began
broadcasting in this spring in Arabic, Kurdish and English, with studios
in Baghdad and London.
Mahmood says Sana TV regularly produces programming on labor struggles,
women's concerns, and the impact of the occupation on Iraqi society. Its
Baghdad studio continues to face material challenges -- such as
unreliable electricity, necessitating on-site generators. Mahmood says
Sana TV hopes to build "mobile studios" for Iraq, citing the threat of
attack from either occupation forces or sectarian militias.
The US supports its own TV networks in Iraq, while Iran and the Gulf
states have satellite stations operating in the country that promote
Shi'ite and Sunni political Islam, respectively. Yet it is Sana TV which
has been singled out for attack.
The Baghdad office which serves as Sana TV's studio and the IFC
headquarters was raided by US troops on June 7. The premises were
damaged when the soldiers forced down the door, and five of the office's
guards were arrested and their weapons confiscated. Documents were also
seized. September 2006 saw a more violent raid, in which a mixed force
of US and Iraqi troops ransacked the office, destroying furniture and
equipment and confiscating records and documents, according to the IFC.
Mahmood and Adil say the IFC is becoming more of a threat because of its
growing successes -- uniting with organized labor to oppose
the pending privatization
of Iraq's oil, bringing together secular anti-occupation
forces in a common front, and liberating space in Baghdad and other
cities from rule by sectarian militias.
Autonomous Zones of Co-Existence
While Adil says the Safety Force does bear arms -- "every home has a
rifle in Iraq, it is just a question of how they are used" -- he
emphasizes that they are not insurgents, and the IFC is pursuing a civil
struggle. "In principle, we believe in the right of armed resistance,"
says Adil. "But we believe a civil resistance is needed in Iraq now.
Armed resistance has only brought terrorism to Iraq, turned the country
into an international battlefield."
He also cites the human cost -- and the potential to build solidarity
with the American citizenry. "In four years of occupation, there are
3,500 US troops dead and perhaps a quarter of a million Iraqis. There is
no difference between the pain of Cindy Sheehan and mothers in Iraq."
And finally a tactical consideration: "It is not so easy to attack the
Adil is a veteran of political struggle against the Saddam Hussein
dictatorship and a follower of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq,
founded after Operation Desert Storm to oppose both the regime and US
designs on the Persian Gulf region. Born in Baghdad in 1964, he was
imprisoned for six months in 1992 for labor activities in the
construction trade. He was tortured in prison -- he never removes his
cap, but a long scar can be seen extending down his scalp to his temple.
Supporters in Canada launched an international campaign which finally
won his release. Realizing he was no longer safe in Saddam's Iraq, he
fled first to the Kurdish zone, then Turkey, and finally Canada. He
returned to Iraq in December 2005 to help revive an independent
Adil is clear that this opposition faces two enemies: the occupation and
what he calls "political Islam" -- a Sunni wing linked to al-Qaeda and
supported by Saudi Arabia, and Shi'ite militias with varying degrees of
support from Iran. These have turned Baghdad into a patchwork of
ethnically cleansed, hostile camps. The IFC includes secular Muslims
(and non-believers) of both Sunni and Shi'ite background in its
leadership, as well as Kurds and people of mixed heritage. Adil claims
the IFC now has a presence in 20 cities, including Baghdad, Basra,
Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit. "We have thousands of followers," he says,
"and we are growing every day." The IFC's first national convention,
held Oct. 21 in Kirkuk, was attended by elected delegates from all of
Iraq's major cities.
The IFC's self-governing zone of some 5,000 in Baghdad, established in
the district of Husseinia last September, is an island of co-existence
in a city torn by sectarian cleansing, says Adil. Thanks to the Safety
Force, the district has become a no-go zone for the sectarian militias.
"There has been no sectarian killing in Husseinia since September 2006,"
Adil boasts. Despite the slaying of Abdelhussein Saddam, the Safety
Force is continuing to grow, he says, with new training sessions underway.
The IFC is now establishing a second self-governing zone in Baghdad's
al-Awaithia, also a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite district that militias on either
side are trying to cleanse. The IFC's first autonomous zone was
established in late 2005 in a community they dubbed al-Tzaman
(Solidarity) in the northern city of Kirkuk. Al-Tzaman has a mixed
population of 5,000 Sunni Arabs, Christians, Turcomans and Kurds.
Adil is clear on where he places the blame for the crisis of violent
sectarianism in Iraq. "The occupation and the US-imposed constitution
have divided Iraq, Sunni against Shiite. The IFC is the only force to
oppose this division of society." He calls the IFC's success in carving
out zones of co-existence a testament to "the power of the people."
In addition to securing the IFC's self-governing zones, the Safety Force
is active throughout Baghdad. In April, a sniper started shooting at
children attempting to flee a school in Alatba'a suburb when fighting
between US troops and insurgents was closing in on the district; the
Safety Force arrived, calmed the students and teachers, promised to
defend them, and established a perimeter around the school until the
danger passed. When residents in Babalmuadham district sought to prevent
the Shi'ite Mahdi militia from establishing a camp there, they called on
the Safety Force, which secured the area and confronted the militiamen,
who retreated. The Safety Force has worked to protect residents from
looters who take advantage of the chaos when fighting breaks out.
A related effort, IFC Doctors, has started to provide free health
services from the IFC headquarters in Baghdad, as well as forming
traveling teams to provide treatment off-site for people who cannot
reach the office.
The Safety Force is increasingly made up of trade unionists, a growing
pillar of support for the IFC. In November 2006, the General Federation
of Trade Unions-Iraq (GFTU-I) merged with the Federation of Workers
Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), already an IFC member organization.
Workers from both groups have volunteered for the SF. And more unions
are joining with the IFC's new campaign against Iraq's pending
US-written oil law, which would grant unprecedentedly free access to
Struggle for the Oil
In a Sept. 8 press conference in Basra, representatives of the IFC's
Anti-Oil Law Front joined with leaders of Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions
(IFOU) to warn the Iraqi parliament against passing the draft oil law.
IFOU president Hassan Jumaa, also a member of the IFC's central council,
announced that the union will shut down the pipeline leading from Iraq's
southern oilfields if the law is approved, and is prepared to halt
operations entirely if the Anti-Oil Law Front calls for a strike. Five
days earlier, the Front staged a protest in Baghdad's Liberation Square.
US forces surrounded the rally, blocking access to the square, and took
pictures of the protesters who carried banners reading "The oil law is
the law of occupation."
An IFOU march against the oil law in Basra on July 16 brought out
thousands, with simultaneous protests in Amara and Nassiryya. Local
governate officials made statements in support of their demands. The
26,000-strong IFOU calls for immediate and complete withdrawal of all
occupation forces from Iraq, and has already demonstrated its muscle. On
June 4, it went on strike for four days to protest the oil law and
demand the release of delayed benefits due workers, paralyzing the
Four IFOU leaders, including Hassan Jumaa, were ordered arrested for
"sabotaging the Iraqi economy." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had
averted a strike in May by promising dialogue in a meeting with IFOU
leaders, now warned he would meet threats to oil production "with an
iron fist." The arrest orders, never formally dropped, hadn't been
carried out when the strike ended. But a heavy presence of Iraqi army
troops remained in Basra, surrounding and blocking marches by the oil
workers. The government recently threatened to carry out the arrest
orders if the unions go ahead with a new strike to protest the oil law.
"The oil law does not represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people,"
Hassan Jumaa said at a May press conference. "It will let the foreign
oil companies into the oil sector and enact privatization under
so-called production-sharing agreements. The federation calls on all
unions in the world to support our demands and to put pressure on
governments and the oil companies not to enter the Iraqi oil fields."
The IFOU, which is demanding the resignation of the general manager of
the Southern Oil Company for corruption, also went on strike over these
demands in September 2006. It has carried out its own reconstruction
work on rigs, ports, pipelines and refineries since the invasion with
minimal, mostly local resources.
Iraq's labor leaders are, of course, targeted for repression and death.
On Sept. 18 -- just two days after the notorious Blackwater massacre in
Baghdad -- IFOU announced that an engineer and leading union member,
Talib Naji Abboud, was killed in an "unprovoked attack" by US forces on
Basra's Rumaila oilfields. Sabah Jawad of the IFOU's support committee
in the UK says the troops opened fire on his car without warning while
he was on his way to work -- admitting that it could have just been a
case of "trigger-happy" soldiers rather than a targeted assassination.
In al-Aadhamiya, outside Baghdad, municipal workers started a strike
August 30 to protest the raid of their offices by US troops. The
soldiers broke doors and windows and smashed the employees' desks, under
the pretext of a general search for arms in the municipality.
In February, US-led forces twice raided the Baghdad offices of the
General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), destroying office equipment
and arresting a member of the union's security staff. Also that month,
the Iraq Syndicate of Journalists was raided, and computers and
membership records were confiscated.
In January, militia gunmen abducted eight Oil Ministry engineers on
their way to a FWCUI press conference on fuel price increases. Four were
released, but one engineer, Abdukareem Mahdi, was later found dead, with
signs of torture. The other three remain missing and are presumed dead.
Days later, FWCUI organizer Mohammed Hameed was among a group of 15
civilians who were randomly gunned down in a marketplace in southern
In July 2006, Kurdish security forces in Suleimanyia opened fire on
striking workers at a cement factory, leaving three dead and more
wounded. A month later, sectarian militias in Mahmoodya, near Baghdad,
assassinated the local secretary of the health workers union and IFC
member Tariq Mahdi. Ali Hassan Abd (better known as Abu Fahad), a leader
at the Southern Oil Company's refinery, was gunned down while walking
home with his young children in February 2005. That same month, Ahmed
Adris Abbas, a leader in Baghdad's transport union, was assassinated by
a hit squad in the city's Martyrs' Square.
Yet despite danger and intimidation, the effort against the oil law is
building. A second rally at Baghdad's Liberation Square called by the
Anti-Oil Law Front Sept. 22 brought out hundreds -- a significant
achievement in an atmosphere of terror.
For a Secular State
An incident which helped spark the IFC's founding came in March 2005,
when a Christian female student was physically attacked by Moqtada
al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia at a campus picnic at Basra University, and
a male student who came to her defense was shot and killed. Thousands of
students marched in protest, a solidarity march was held by students in
Suleimanyia, and the Mahdi militia was driven from the campus. These
struggles led to the establishment of the National Federation of Student
Councils, another IFC member organization.
Another of the IFC's founding organizations, the Organization of Women's
Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), led a campaign against Iraq's new constitution.
Article 41 of the new constitution overturned the more secular 1959
Personal Status Law, enshrined as Article 118 of the old constitution,
which barred gender discrimination. The new measure instead refers
family disputes to sharia courts -- Shi'ite or Sunni depending on the
affiliation of the litigants. In 2004, a campaign by OWFI and allied
groups -- including street protests -- succeeded in keeping the sharia
measure out of the draft constitution, by a narrow vote of the
then-Governing Council. However, a basically identical measure is in the
permanent constitution approved by referendum the following year. OWFI
believes the sharia courts will mean denial of divorce, inheritance and
child custody rights to women.
OWFI leader Yanar Mohammed says the new constitution is encouraging an
atmosphere in which acid attacks are on the rise even in once-secular
Baghdad against "immodest" women who refuse to take the abaya (Iraq's
version of the veil). The Mahdi Army as well as its rival Sunni militias
publicly flog and even hang women accused of "adultery" (which can
include having been raped). Last year, OWFI sent teams to Baghdad's
morgue under cover of searching for missing relatives to reveal the
horrific nature of Iraq's reality. They found that hundreds of unclaimed
women's corpses turning up monthly at the morgue -- many beheaded,
disfigured or bearing signs of extreme torture.
OWFI runs a shelter in Baghdad for women fleeing "honor killings," which
have surged under the occupation. Mohammed, of course, has received
numerous death threats.
The draft constitution for the Kurdish region also includes a measure
recognizing sharia law as a foundation for legislation. OWFI's
spokesperson for the Kurdish region, Houzan Mahmoud, has also received
e-mailed death threats -- even as she pursues her education at the
University of London.
Samir Adil says sectarian militias and US troops alike tear down IFC
posters reading "No Sunni, no Shi'ite, occupation is the enemy."
Appeal for Solidarity
In addition to Zenko, IFC solidarity groups have been established in the
UK, France and South Korea. In America, US Labor Against the War has
brought Iraqi union leaders on speaking tours. IFOU general-secretary
Faleh Abood Umara was in Ohio on tour with USLAW when the arrest order
was issued against him in the summer. The American Friends Service
Committee also brought Samir Adil on a tour of the Northeast in 2006.
But there is still little awareness in the US about Iraq's civil
resistance. The dichotomized vision of occupation-vs-Islamist insurgents
infects the mainstream as well as the anti-war forces. In its efforts to
groom proxies, as with the Sunni "Guardians" in Anbar, the US is
exacerbating the civil war -- co-opting one gang of tribal reactionaries
to fight against another. Meanwhile, when a progressive and secular
self-defense force emerges -- in opposition to the occupation, rather
than collaboration, giving it real legitimacy -- the US executes its
leader. And the anti-war movement remains largely oblivious.
When asked about secular civil resistance movements in Iraq, Middle East
scholar Juan Cole, publisher of the popular Informed Comment blog, says:
"I don't know of any significant such groups; they don't show up in the
Arabic language newspapers I read, and nobody votes secular when they
vote . . . I think they are by now mostly in exile. The religious groups
are better organized, get outside money, and have paramilitaries."
Gilbert Achcar, author of The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the
Making of the New World Disorder, largely concurs. "What is tragic is
that in the whole area actually, left-wing, progressive, emancipatory
forces are quite marginal. As a product of historical defeat -- or even
bankruptcy, because of very wrong policies in some cases -- the
overwhelming forces in the mass movement have been of a very different
nature, mainly Islamic fundamentalist forces. Iraq is a country where
you have had historically a very powerful communist party with a
tradition of building workers' movements and all that, and one would
have hoped that this would at least lead to the survival of a
progressive current -- but the problem is that the communist party
joined the governing council set up by Bremer and ruined its credibility
as an anti-imperialist force by doing so."
Achcar also takes a dim view of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq. The
WCPI was founded in 1991 in response to Desert Storm, the demise of the
Soviet Union and emergence of the US as the single superpower, viewing
these developments as mandating a return to militant workers'
self-organization in the Persian Gulf region. Samir Adil and other IFC
leaders are followers of the Worker-Communist Party, which views the
Iraqi regime as illegitimate and collaborationist. But in Achcar's view,
the Worker-Communist Party's anti-clericalism is too dogmatic. "They
have a discourse which is very violently opposed to all Islam -- not
only Islamic fundamentalism," he says. "They have formulas that would be
provocative for ordinary Muslim believers, I would say. They denounce
Islamic fundamentalist forces, but they don't take the necessary
precaution of clearly making a distinction between these currents and
the religion of Islam."
The IFC, however, insist that they also have secular and progressive
Muslims in their leadership. Recently, the IFC has held meetings with
traditional tribal leaders in Basra province, issuing joint statements
of unity against the occupation and Oil Law. In any case, the decision
to launch the IFC has prompted a split in the WCPI, with the hard-liners
who reject coalition politics leaving to form a "Left-Worker Communist
Party of Iraq."
Achcar does acknowledge worthwhile work by WCPI followers. "They
organized activities on the women issue, and a trade union movement," he
says. "I mean, when you look at the landscape in Iraq, they are much
more progressive than most of what you've got."
And Achcar urges support for the oil workers, with whom the IFC are now
allied. "What I think would be worth support in Iraq is the oil and gas
workers union in Basra," he says. "This is a genuine union, a genuinely
autonomous union, not the off-shoot of any party. And they are in a very
sensitive position because the oil industry is the main resource of
Iraq, and that's the main target of the occupation, of course. Therefore
I think they deserve strong support in their fight, which is presently
concentrated on opposing the privatization plans or designs concerning
the oil industry . . ."
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies articulates the
dilemma: "There has been a huge problem since the beginning of the US
invasion and occupation of Iraq, that the only resistance we hear about
is the military resistance. Certainly Iraqis have the right under
international law to fight against an illegal military occupation,
including through use of military force -- but that has never been the
only kind of resistance. Key sectoral organizations -- oil workers,
women, human rights defenders and many others -- have all continued
their work to oppose the occupation, at great risk to their own safety.
Many of them operate in local areas, and almost all function outside the
US-controlled 'green zone,' so few western journalists, and almost no
mainstream US journalists, have access to their work."
She too sees hope in the struggle of the oil workers. "The oil workers
union has provided one of the extraordinary models of local/national
mobilization in defense of workers rights as well as defense of Iraqi
sovereignty and unity (through the unions' opposition to the US-drafted
oil law which would privatize a huge part of Iraq's oil industry). The
international solidarity mobilized by the oil workers unions,
particularly among trade unionists in Europe and the US, has provided an
important model of how that kind of cross-border collaboration can take
shape. The work of US Labor Against the War, in mobilizing labor
opposition to the Iraq occupation and simultaneously building support
for the Iraqi oil workers, also provides a model for international
solidarity from the other side."
That the work of the IFC goes largely unnoticed outside Iraq is
particularly ironic in light of Bush's recent statement that there can
be no "instant democracy in Iraq" because "Saddam Hussein killed all the
Mandelas." As the death of Abdelhussein Saddam indicates, Bush is
continuing the work of Saddam Hussein in eliminating progressive Iraqis
who support co-existence. However, despite the best of his efforts, they
are not all dead yet.
"The occupation and puppet government in Iraq created this conflict,"
says Nadia Mahmood. "They supported the militias and opened the door to
terrorist networks to come and function in Iraq. Before the war, George
Bush said he had to invade Iraq because of al-Qaeda -- but what happened
was al-Qaeda came after the occupation. They control many cities in Iraq
and are imposing the most reactionary practices on the civil population.
Before, Iran had no role in Iraq, but now we see the Iranian government
empowering militias in many cities in Iraq, especially in Basra. The US
is not supporting political freedom in Iraq. They just seek to loot our
resources, and its time to go."
But she emphasizes that if the US exit is to lead to peace and a secular
order, the civil resistance will also need support from friends abroad.
"The victory against US forces in Iraq will not be a local victory -- it
will be an international victory."