Revival in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Submitted by Anon on 24 June, 2006 - 1:34

Nadia Mahmood, a member of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, was in Iraq in April, in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Sulaimaniya. She spoke to Martin Thomas.

In Baghdad now, it is not safe anywhere. Sadr City is controlled by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army. Women cannot go on the streets unveiled. Even the Green Zone is not really safe. Some Shia areas, like al-Khadimiya and al-Gazaliya, are not safe for Sunnis; some Sunni areas, like Palestine Street, are not safe for Shias.

We are still able to run a weekly literature stall on al-Muttanabi Street, which is a street with lots of bookshops and bookstalls. The Worker-communist Party of Iraq offices are in al-Zaim Street, and the offices of the Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions, the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, and the Iraqi Freedom Congress, are all nearby. This is a street with hotels and markets, close to the Tigris, formerly a tourist district, not very residential.

The district round Haifa Street is also not quite as bad as others. It is an area inhabited by middle-class people and intellectuals. Ba'th party officials used to live there.

The situation is on the Baghdad university campus as professors at the university told me that every day when they go to university, they are not sure they will get home alive. One woman professor I know who goes unveiled says that she is now under pressure from students to veil herself.

Before 2003 you always lived under threat from Saddam. Now people still live under threat - but they don't know which of many directions the danger may come from.

Lots of qualified people have left Baghdad to go to Jordan and other countries. Many Sunnis have left Baghdad to go to mainly-Sunni cities, and Shias to go to Shia cities in southern Iraq. Some mixed Sunni-Shia families have divided. If you have a Shia husband and a Sunni wife, maybe the wife flees north to a Sunni city, and the husband south to a Shia city.

Many Kurds live in some parts of Sadr City, though there is no area which is solidly Kurdish. They live under threat too. I don't things think things are better in the mainly-Kurdish streets than elsewhere.

Kirkuk is more sharply divided than Baghdad. The Kurdish areas are very solidly Kurdish, and the Arab areas very solidly Arab, though not everyone likes or accepts this division.

The Worker-communist Party of Iraq ran a campaign three years ago against the communal divisions, and we went into every area. Despite the divisions and the killings, it is still possible to go into every area, and Kurds and Arabs do mix in the markets, the schools, and the workplaces.

I've heard Falah Alwan say that you don't hear Sunni or Shia sectarianism in the workplaces. In the society at large there is violent conflict between Sunni and Shia, but among workers, no. Falah says he has never heard of Sunni-Shia clashes inside a workplace.

Of course, many workplaces are shut down. Many capitalists have fled. A very high proportion of the workforce is unemployed and lives on official food rations.

The food ration has been reduced, and is now less than under Saddam during the sanctions and the oil-for-food agreement. And much of the food handed out is past its use-by date. There was lot of anger and people were outraged.

There are still a lot of people homeless because of the war destruction. There are organisations of the homeless in Baghdad and Basra. A lot of people are living in makeshift accommodation. For example, in Kirkuk, people are living in the football stadium.

Mostly, however, people manage by going to relatives, so you often have two or three families in one house, and sometimes very poor houses. In Kirkuk, for example, a lot of the Kurdish families live in single-room concrete huts.

There's no publicly-owned housing in Iraq. All the houses are privately-owned.

Water and electricity supplies are still very bad in Baghdad and Kirkuk. In fact, they are worse than they used to be. You used to be able to tell when cuts in supply were coming, but now they can happen at any time.

In Sulaimaniya, there is something more like an economic boom. Workers have come from the south to work on the building sites. Some professionals have come to work there. Prostitutes, too. Security is not nearly as bad as in the south.

But it is very difficult for people from the south to get jobs in Iraqi Kurdistan. You have to show your Kurdish "credentials" - a family connection, for example - or that your professional qualifications are needed.

Workers who come to Iraqi Kurdistan from the south do not face hostility from the local population; it's more that they have problems dealing with the authorities.

We're starting to hear of more strikes and protests in Iraqi Kurdistan. The courtyard outside the government offices in Sulaimaniya is constantly full of people protesting for different reasons. When the authorities started to privatise the universities, there were strikes at Sulaimaniya and Irbil universities.

In the sanctions period, people felt helpless, as if they could do nothing but struggle for survival. For over ten years Iraqi Kurdistan lived like a refugee camp, on UN rations.Now that the economic situation is a bit better, they are beginning to assert their rights. They can see that the ruling Kurdish parties, the PUK and the KDP, have millions, but they're using them to build palaces for their government people.

People say: "We fought with the PUK. Now our party is in power. But we still live in bad conditions. And you can't get a job unless you are a PUK or KDP member".

After the fall of Saddam, the Worker-communist Party of Iraq went to Baghdad and focused our activity there. Our party has its history in Iraqi Kurdistan. But we have made mistakes there.

For example, on 14 July 2000 the PUK attacked our offices and killed many of our cadres. Many of our cadres left Kurdistan. We lost the trust of many people.

The lesson is that we were the voice for the people in Iraqi Kurdistan, but we were't able to organise people in their residential areas or their workplaces. We had good slogans, but we were not able to organise in society.

For example again, in September 1996 the KDP brought the Iraqi army into Iraqi Kurdistan. We didn't lead the people to confront them. We fled. If we had stayed and fought, people would trust us better now.

Now, every time there is a protest or a strike, the PUK says that the Worker-communist Party of Iraq is behind it. Last year Rebwar Ahmed, the leader of the WCPI, said to the PUK: we are not confronting you. You are in power, we are the opposition. Do not persecute strikes or protests on the pretext that they are "WCPI".

The PUK and the KDP rule society in their different parts of Iraqi Kurdistan in the same of the oppressed regimes. For example, in October 2005 a Kurdish journalist based in Austria, Kamal Sayid Qadir, was arrested in Irbil and given a 30-year jail sentence for writing an article criticising the KDP leader Mustafa Barzani. After an international campaign, he was finally released in April 2006 and allowed back to Austria.

On 16 March this year, a memorial day for Saddam's Halabja massacre of 1988, a crowd of five thousand young people attacked the PUK offices in Halabja, demanding work, electricity, and public services. The PUK arrested a lot of the young people.

In Kalar the PUK arrested more people, including a political bureau member of the WCPI, and kept them until the Anfal commemorations were passed.

There are big social protest movements in Iraqi Kurdistan, but I think they can't last without a party.

The Worker-communist Party of Iraq does not have an office in Sulaimaniya, though we can operate, sell papers on the streets and so on. The Federation of Workers' Councils and Unions does not have any organisation yet in Iraqi Kurdistan. I don't know how much consideration has been given to the possibility of FWCUI organisation in Iraqi Kurdistan. I know that at the FWCUI congress in Baghdad last year, workers from Iraqi Kurdistan attended - but as individuals.

It's the same sort of story with the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq. We had a women's organisation in Iraqi Kurdistan before 2003. It merged into OWFI in 2003. But then most of the focus was on Baghdad. Now some people are talking about the idea of a new women's organisation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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