For full democracy in Iraq!

Submitted by Anon on 2 May, 2003 - 12:53

By Clive Bradley

The collapse of the Ba'thist regime in Iraq and the military victory of the US and UK is a substantial political triumph for Bush and Blair. But the disorder it has unleashed poses serious questions, both for the occupying powers, and for the Iraqi people. There is a political vacuum, yet to be filled.

The US's plan was to remove Saddam and replace him with a government of their choosing-in the first place under retired US general Jay Garner (who is close to the administration hawks), but then moving to rule by Iraqis friendly to the US. But the first attempt to hold a meeting of Iraqi oppositionists was boycotted by the main Islamic forces. Ahmed Chalabi, the millionaire leader of the Iraqi National Congress favoured by the Pentagon and Defense Department, has no base in Iraq, and already there have been demonstrations against him.

The dominant mood in Iraq, outside the Kurdish-controlled north, seems to be relief that the dictatorship has fallen, but concern the occupying forces leave as soon as possible.

The rapid emergence of Shia Muslims as a political factor in southern Iraq and in the poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad has taken both the US and the Western media by surprise-and holds out for Bush the nightmare scenario: "regime change" might usher in a radical Islamist anti-Americanism.

US military strategy was that their invading armies would link up to Shia uprisings in the south and Kurdish guerrillas in the north. In the latter case, they had real plans; in the south, it was wishful thinking. There were such uprisings in 1991, at the end of the last Gulf War. But they were abandoned to a bloody fate by George Bush Sr. This time, the population remained, if not indifferent, unengaged, waiting to see what would happen.

For a while, this threatened to bog the Americans down around Nasiriyah, and the British around Basra.

Then Saddam's regime collapsed. The Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, and fedayeen Saddam, apparently decimated by American fire power south of Baghdad, vanished as if into thin air. Some must have fled-to Syria, perhaps. Others are in hiding. Thousands of hardline Ba'thists remain in Iraq's cities.

As the Shias have mobilised, they have been hostile to the US/UK, and to whatever government they might install.

Shia Muslims, concentrated mainly in southern Iraq, are a majority of the population, perhaps 60%; but political power has always been held by Sunnis, before and under Ba'th rule. Shias on the whole are poorer. There is a distinction also between those Shias who have been settled for generations in the cities (in particular in the religious centres, and in Baghdad), and more recent-and poorer-migrants from the countryside. Saddam made efforts to co-opt religious, including Shia, symbols and sentiment-ostentatiously praying at holy sites, for example. But Shia religious festivals were prohibited-such as the celebration of the martyrdom of Hussein in Karbala which thousands of Iraqis this week took to the streets to observe.

Domination by the mosque was not so hard to predict. It is one of the few social structures which has survived Ba'thist rule intact. There are no alternative political parties, or community-based organisations, almost no civil society at all. This indeed is one of the reasons "law and order" broke down so abruptly: with the collapse of the state, there was little social "glue". The mosque is an exception, allowing clerical leaders to move into the vacuum.

There are three main Shia movements, which are rivals. Ayatollah Sistani, the highest clerical figure (an Iranian), is a relative moderate, who called on Iraqis not to resist the American invasion. As his son put it: "The Americans are welcome, but I don't think it's a good idea that they stay for long."

More radical factions demanded Sistani leave Iraq-and murdered his associate, al-Khoei, who had lived in Britain. The group around Muqtada al-Sadr, the 30 year old son of a cleric murdered in 1999, organised illegally under Saddam, and established a base in Najaf, nearby Kufa, and the slums of Baghdad. The Iranian based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Muhammed Bakir al-Hakim, aims for an Islamic Republic on the Khomeini model. SCIRI was involved in the US-backed Iraq National Congress, but has since adopted an anti-American position. SCIRI is descended from the al-Dawa Party, formed during the 1958 revolution, which was decimated by repression in the early eighties.

Iran is mainly a Shia Muslim country, ruled since 1979 by clerics. But Iraqi Shias, despite all the efforts of the Iranian government, remained loyal to Iraqi (or perhaps Arab) nationalism throughout the Iran-Iraq war. Leading clerics like Sistani are opposed to government by mullahs.

The Islamist factions, whether or not they can unite, or one or other dominate, currently are front runners in the race for power in post-Ba'thist Iraq-in the south. The US is unlikely to tolerate their growth unchecked. On the other hand, whatever their current radicalism, these groups may choose to find an accommodation with the occupying forces, rather than wage a full-scale war against them. The most recent reports suggest that SCIRI plan to attend the next meeting convened by Garner to discuss a new government. The US, for its part, will no doubt try to co-opt the Islamists.

In the north, the Kurdish parties crushed the Ba'th regime in open military alliance with the US. In Kirkuk and Mosul, the biggest cities in the region, there has been ominous communal bloodletting: Kirkuk in particular has many ethnic groups, and was heavily "arabised" by Saddam-that is, Kurds were driven out. How these Kurdish strongholds will relate to whatever authority is established in Baghdad, let alone to the rising Shia movements, remains to be seen. The Kurdish parties are committed to the integrity of Iraq-and the US is anxious to ensure they remain so, to placate their ally Turkey, which is watching Kurdish military success in northern Iraq with trepidation, concerned it doesn't stir up its own 13 million Kurds.

The alliance with the United States has brought the Kurdish people obvious success. Jay Garner was greeted enthusiastically when he arrived in Suleimaniyah this week. But as the weeks progress, this alliance will be tested. The US is likely to want to curtail the relative independence its Kurdish allies have enjoyed up to now. Conflicts may develop.

The Iraqi Communist Party has quickly emerged from exile and the underground to publish its newspaper, "People's Path", calling for democracy. They favour a popular front coalition of all democratic forces in Iraq. From the revolution of 1958 to the first Ba'th coup of 1963, the CP was a powerful mass party, the second largest communist party (after Indonesia) outside a Stalinist state. They were brutally crushed by the Ba'thists in 1963. Later, in the 1970s, they participated in the Ba'thist government, waging war against the Kurds. Since they fell out of favour with Saddam, they have been heavily repressed. Still, for younger Iraqis who don't remember, or know about, the terrible history of this movement, perhaps it will prove a pole of attraction. It has organisation and "a name", and opposed both the US/UK and the regime in the war, which may give it some credibility.

There are a myriad other opposition groups-pro-Syrian Ba'thists, etc.-who do not represent much. Most interesting is the Worker-communist Party of Iraq (a mainly Kurdish group) which has recently opened offices in Baghdad and Nasiriyah.

As Iraqi society descended into looting and chaos, the US/UK seemed unsure what to do. Their occupying force had been large enough to win the war, but far too small to organise a policing operation. They looked to local dignitaries, tribal chiefs, and ultimately to the personnel of the collapsed Ba'thist state, to help them restore order-a matter of great concern to those who have suffered at their hands.
For now, the chief competition comes from the mosque and the various Shia factions-although vigilante groups have been formed in middle class Sunni suburbs to protect property.

The question of democracy, from local level, from the protection of hospitals and homes, up to the level of government, is central to the future of Iraq. Who decides? Who rules? Democratic neighbourhood committees will be needed to restore order, allocate resources (food, etc), deal with problems resulting from lack of electricity, water, etc, manage hospitals, and so on. Secular and democratic forces will need to challenge the domination of the mosques.

And there must be no reconstitution of the old police force. On the contrary, those responsible for atrocities will need to be brought to justice-and new, democratic systems of justice will need to be developed. Again, here, real democracy will be in competition both with Islamic law and the rule of the mosques, and the summary justice of "mob rule".

Nationally, too, democracy is vital. The people of Iraq must be free to govern themselves and decide their own future, without military government by occupying foreign powers, or governments cobbled together by those powers to serve their predatory interests. There should be a constituent assembly, elected by universal suffrage, to draw up a new constitution.

National minorities-the largest of which is the Kurds-must be given the right to self-determination.

The working class in Iraq has a rich tradition-but one that has been crushed for forty years. Sanctions have impoverished and shrunk the working class. But as the economy starts up again-as the oil wells start pumping, which they are already starting to do (though, bizarrely, the big powers have yet to lift sanctions), the working class will start to move. Immediately, now, there are issues of workers' control posed by the collapse of the economy, the crisis in the health and sanitation systems, and so on.

But it's likely to take time for the workers' movement itself to begin to organise and reconstitute itself. There was once an independent trade union movement in Iraq; under Ba'th rule, all unions were only an adjunct of the state. New unions may emerge, and will need the help and solidarity of the workers' movement internationally.

Iran, next door, holds many lessons for Iraq. Iraq in 2003 is unlikely simply to replay the Iranian revolution of 25 years ago; but there are parallels. The Shah of Iran was overthrown by an enormous popular movement that included a three-month general strike, demonstrations of millions of people, and a large, armed left. The working class and the left were defeated by the Muslim clergy which won the leadership of the revolution, and then-physically-crushed them. Thousands were arrested and executed.

In part, the left was able to be crushed because it mistakenly saw the mullahs around Ayatollah Khomeini as its allies. That mistake must not be repeated in Iraq.

But there are positive lessons, too: the central role of the working class, which formed its own democratic committees, or "shoras", in workplaces. As it begins to awake from decades of totalitarian rule, the Iraqi working class can learn those vital lessons.

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