Houzan Mahmoud from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq talks about her recent visit to Iraq. Houzan is a UK representative for the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Union in Iraq. Interview by Martin Thomas
In Baghdad, you have the feeling that this society has been abandoned. There is a vacuum of state institutions. All the news is of explosions, kidnappings, and beheadings. From six or seven in the evening, in some areas, it’s too risky to move around.
Generally, what you see on the streets are men in cars, buses, taxis. There is no system of traffic control, so the streets are really crazy. There are lots of roadblocks and checkpoints, so, if you go somewhere, you can often be stuck in a car, waiting at a roadblock, for two hours or so. You see rubbish on the streets because there is no system to collect it. You never see a smile on anyone’s face.
Unemployment is still very high, but on the whole you don’t see the unemployed on the streets. Some workers have moved north, where conditions are quieter and there are more jobs. In Sulamaniya (in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq) there are Arab workers building houses and roads.
The Union of the Unemployed of Iraq has proposed projects to give the unemployed jobs, but so far the government has only agreed to projects creating 3000 jobs. The government has also agreed under pressure to the UUI’s call for unemployment benefit payments, but they have not started it yet. The unemployed are still totally dependent on government food rations. There are still hundreds of thousands of people living in temporary camps, reliant on international aid. Our organisation has helped to liaise between humanitarian organisations and those camps. Last year the Interim Government wanted to evict some camp dwellers, and we mobilised to defend them.
The public electricity supply operates in Baghdad for about four hours a day. Some people have their own generators for electricity outside those hours. The water supply is similar — it operates a few hours a day. The phone system is working now, but not very well. A lot of people have mobile phones, but often the network goes down.
It seems that the US/UK occupiers and the puppet government have no interest in restoring services. Even in the police checkpoints conditions are terrible.
There is a parliament now, but the groups in it are not able to function together. They have no sense of running a government. They are busier with their internal tribal, ethnic and religious conflicts. They are all very reactionary right wing forces and identify their political agenda on the bases of race, religion, and so on. There is a very big gap between them and the people in society. These imposed groups are very alien to the real desires and aspirations of Iraqi people for freedom, equality and secularism, as well as welfare.
The mosques are looked after and kept well, but that is all. These mosques are places to spread myths and ignorance in society.
For 35 years of Saddam’s dictatorship, workers, women, and students had no right to do anything; that absence of rights, and the war with Iran, created a dire situation. Then thirteen years of sanctions had a very destructive impact on the working class. In the last two years it has started to become clear, for a section of the working class, what a real working class organisation is, and who will defend workers’ rights. Our federation has been identified with this growing awareness.
The Federation congress in Baghdad had more than 200 delegates, from cities like Basra, Nasiriyah, and Kirkuk as well as from Baghdad. The Federation includes workers from various backgrounds and does not identify with any single ethnic or religious background. There are people in the Federation who have some nationalist views but we try to change those ideas and make the workers identify themselves with their class and see themselves as part of the international working class struggle to fight capitalism.
I think we have managed to get our progressive views into many worker activists, and gain momentum for our ideals, opposition to occupation and political Islam.
There is no new wave of strikes at present. But when I was in Baghdad there was talk about a strike in Al-Dawra oil refinery, about pay and conditions. In some industrial sectors, in Basra for example, activists have been threatened with the sack if they do not give up the Federation. That’s a result of the impact of our work. The threats come from the management or from members of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which is strongly backed by the state.
In some areas of Baghdad, like Al-Jihad, we have experimented with a model of districts being run by the local people. We want to expand that through the Iraqi Freedom Congress which we have initiated. We want to create “people’s houses” in districts so that people can run their own services. The problem is our lack of money to expand to new areas, but the hopeful thing is that there is a big interest in this project in Iraq.
The Iraqi Freedom Congress is a project by various groups — the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, Worker communist party of Iran-Hekmatist, and comrades in the Japanese Movement for democratic socialism and some intellectuals and poets from Iraq.
It responds to the need to end the occupation and end the rule of the Islamists. There is a lot of anger among Iraqi people against the occupation, and not all the people who are angry join the “resistance”. Many people have joined the Iraqi Freedom Congress, and it is about to open an office in Baghdad. It has offices in some other cities already. In Mosul many people have joined the IFC, and they help people set up their own groups.
Our ideal is a socialist republic of course, but it is not a revolutionary situation in Iraq today. Everyone wants to end the occupation, but we also have to end the power of the political Islamists. The IFC platform is very progressive in its aims. It is about women, workers, and students, all together, creating a front against the occupation and against the Islamists. It also has an international dimension. It calls on the support of progressive people internationally.
I met with two leaders of the Basra students’ strike [in March, against Islamist violence]: Shehab Ahmed, a medical student, and Sara Faleh. Both were very active in the strike, and they had created a secret student committee even before it. Now they want to create a public Iraq-wide progressive student organisation. In Basra more than 26 high schools have joined their student committee. But they function secretly because they could become a prime target for the Islamists.
Their main demands are: no militia intervention on the campuses; freedom of dress, speech, and association in universities and high schools; and not allowing the government to impose restrictions on students like, for example, the gender segregation which exists at present in Basra in canteens and so on. A lot of female students hate the Islamists even if they do wear the veil.
In Baghdad it is not as bad as in Basra, but what I saw on the streets was only maybe two out of a hundred women not veiled. It would have been a much higher proportion before the invasion. There are big pictures of religious figures on the streets. That is new. Generally there is a lot of anger and hatred against political Islam for their crimes against women and attacks on the civil and individual rights of people.
As for the “resistance”, people are aware that a lot of Islamists and Arab nationalists have come to Iraq as a result of the occupation. In Basra there are lots of Islamists from Iran. There they are part of the local administration. Elsewhere the Islamists are in the “resistance”.
Some people say that Ba’thists are a strong force in the “resistance”. Yes, they are a pole within the so-called resistance due to their financial assets and knowledge of the area, but socially there is no sympathy for Ba’thism in Iraq.
A new labour law for Iraq has been proposed by the ILO [International Labour Organisation, based in Geneva]. Our federation took part in two meetings to discuss it and proposed its own additions — women’s rights, a working week of 35 hours (it was 48 hours in the ILO draft), annual leave, and pay for housewives if they don’t have jobs. I don’t know what progress there has been on this.
The Interim Government decree making Saturdays a holiday as well as Fridays seems to operate in Baghdad [though in parts of Iraq, Islamists have mobilised against it on the grounds that Saturday is “Jewish”, and sometimes used death threats to force schools to open on Saturdays]. As far as I could see, people like having the extra day off each week.
I also visited Kirkuk and Sulamaniya. In Kirkuk, I stayed in a comrade’s house. Her daughter is twelve years old. At school her teacher is veiled, and insisted that all the girls be veiled too. The children hate it.
In Sulamaniya things are different. The water and electricity supplies operate. Women can go out unveiled. You can see girls and boys together on the street at night. It is much safer than Baghdad, though still backward in many ways.
The last time I was there was eight years ago. It is more stable now, but there is a lot of corruption in the administration. In Sulamaniya people are very much against the Shia alliance, and fed up with Talabani joining a coalition with it. Some people have illusions in the Americans. There are also many young people who are very much against the Americans, and the Kurdish administration.
There have been big student protests in Sulamaniya against plans to start a private college, and they managed to close it down. On 4 May there was a new huge demonstration by students of Sulamaniya University against the corruption in the city’s administration and the low standards of teaching.
In this demonstration, Rebwar Aref, who is member of the central committee of WCPI, director of International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, as well as responsible for the Campaign to Try Saddam gave a speech, welcomed by the protestors. His history of socialistic activism has caused anger among the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), causing the security forces to arrest him.
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq started in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, in 1993, but we also had an underground organisation in the south. We were banned in 2000 and five of our comrades were killed by the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talabani’s group].
Under Saddam it was very difficult to function in the south. Since 2003 we have grown more in the south than in the north.
In the north it is possible to organise public demonstrations and meetings but still with restrictions and fear of arrest. When the students protested against the private college, the police opened fire on the crowd, but over their heads, to scare them. We can have bookstalls, meetings, and so on.
It is more difficult in the south due to lack of security and the Islamists. But still, we have two headquarters for the Worker-communist Party in Baghdad alone, and offices in Basra, Kirkuk, Miqdadiah, and Nasiriyah. We have two newspapers in Arabic, and can distribute them. In Baghdad we can run bookstalls in Al-Mutanabi square, though not in some other areas, like Sadr City.
We organised a women’s day demonstration on 8 March in Al-Firdous Square. OWFI and the student committee are active in Baghdad University.
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq’s third congress was held successfully in the Palestine International Hotel with delegates from many cities in Iraq and abroad. This congress was a historical event for us and for society, because we are the only force which has built up the secular progressive front in Iraq and is challenging the occupation but with a different perspective.
The main debate was on the political situation in Iraq and the Iraqi Freedom Congress initiative. We decided a communiqué about our opposition to the current government, and a resolution on human rights, and we elected a new leadership. We have developed activities for workers’ rights, student strikes, and women’s rights with no resources. The party has advanced a lot.
I could see that my party has a very strong social base — many worker and women as well as student activists were present. To my mind it is the WCPI activists who are leading the protests of people in Iraq, who are the non compromising forces in Iraq, with a very clear socialistic vision to lead women, workers and student movement forward to end the occupation and the dark rule of reactionary Islamists.
People now know that there is a third pole against the terrorists on both sides. If our party did not exist, it would be just be the Americans on one side, the Islamic terrorists on the other.