Iraq’s Civil Resistance

Iraq’s Civil Resistance

The secular left brings together unionists, women’s organizations and students.


Although it is eclipsed from the headlines by the ongoing carnage, there is an active civil resistance in Iraq that opposes the occupation, the torture regime it protects and the Islamist and Baathist insurgencies alike. This besieged opposition–under threat of repression and assassination–is fighting to keep alive elementary freedoms for women, leading labor struggles against Halliburton and other contractors, opposing the privatization of the country’s oil and other resources and seeking a secular future for Iraq. They note that what they call “political Islam” dominates both sides in the conflict–the collaborationist regime and the armed insurgents. Both seek to impose a reactionary, quasi-theocratic order.

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. 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.”

On July 4 the leader of a popular citizens’ self-defense force in Baghdad was executed. According to the Iraq Freedom Congress (IFC)–a civil resistance coalition–a unit of US Special Forces troops and Iraqi National Guard forces raided the home of Abdel-Hussein Saddam at 3 am, opening fire without warning on him and his young daughter. The attackers took Abdel-Hussein, leaving the girl bleeding on the floor. Two days later his body was found in a local morgue. Since late last year Abdel-Hussein had been the leader of the Safety Force, a civil patrol organized by the IFC to protect their communities. Like many IFC leaders, he had been an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime and was imprisoned for two years in the 1990s. His death was mostly ignored by the world media.

But on August 3 some 100 activists from the Japanese antiwar 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? Abdel-Hussein found out!

Among those speaking were two IFC leaders, including president Samir Adil, who said, “Because he said, ‘No Sunni, no Shiite, yes to human identity,’ because he wanted to build a civil society in Iraq without occupation, without sectarian militias–for that they killed Abdel-Hussein. 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 we have the support of people like you, we will never give up.”

The IFC was formed in 2005, bringing together trade unions, women’s organizations, neighborhood assemblies and student groups around two demands: a secular Iraqi state and an end to the occupation. ZENKO’s most significant achievement over the past year has been raising $400,000, which helped 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 Shiite 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.”

Other IFC leaders have been assassinated–generally by unaccountable militias–and the Baghdad office that serves as IFC headquarters and Sana TV’s local studio was twice raided by US troops. Mahmood and Adil say the IFC is becoming more of a threat because of its growing successes–uniting with organized labor to oppose privatization of Iraq’s oil, bringing together secular anti-occupation forces in a common front and liberating space in Baghdad and other cities from sectarian militias.

While Adil says the IFC’s 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 the IFC is pursuing a civil struggle and that its members are not insurgents. “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, turning the country into an international battlefield.”

Adil is also a veteran of political and labor struggles against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Imprisoned for six months in 1992, he was tortured in prison–he never removes his cap, but a long scar can be seen extending down his scalp to his temple. He returned to Iraq from Canadian exile in 2005 to help revive an independent political opposition.

Adil says this opposition faces two enemies: the occupation and political Islam–a Sunni wing linked to Al Qaeda and supported by Saudi Arabia, and Shiite militias with varying degrees of support from Iran. These have turned Baghdad into a patchwork of hostile camps. The IFC includes secular Muslims (and nonbelievers) of both Sunni and Shiite background in its leadership, as well as Kurds and people of mixed heritage. Adil claims the IFC now has a presence in twenty 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 October 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 Husseiniya more than a year ago, is an island of coexistence in a city torn by sectarian cleansing, says Adil. Thanks to the Safety Force, the district has become a no-go zone for sectarian militias. “There has been no sectarian killing in Husseiniya since September 2006,” Adil boasts. The IFC is working to establish more self-governing zones in Baghdad’s mixed Sunni-Shiite districts, and it has a similar autonomous zone in Kirkuk.

Adil is clear on where he places the blame for the crisis of violent sectarianism. “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.”

The Safety Force is increasingly made up of trade unionists, a growing pillar of support for the IFC. In a September 8 press conference in Basra, representatives of the IFC’s Anti-Oil Law Front joined leaders of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions to warn the Iraqi Parliament against passing the US-written oil law, which would grant broad access to foreign multinationals. IFOU president Hassan Juma’a, 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. Five days earlier, the IFC had staged a protest in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. American forces surrounded the rally, blocking access to the square.

On June 4 the IFOU went on strike for four days to protest the oil law and demand the release of benefits due to workers, paralyzing the Basra-Baghdad pipeline. Four IFOU leaders, including Juma’a, were ordered arrested for “sabotaging the Iraqi economy.” The arrest orders, never formally dropped, hadn’t been enforced when the strike ended. Even though a heavy Iraqi army presence remained in Basra after the strike, an IFOU march against the oil law on July 16 brought out thousands. The government recently threatened to carry out the arrest orders if the unions stage a new strike.

“The oil law does not represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people,” Juma’a said in a statement from the union in May. “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 oilfields.”

Iraq’s labor leaders are, of course, targeted for death. On September 18 the IFOU announced that a leading union member, Talib Naji Abboud, was shot when US troops opened fire on his car. This killing may have been a case of trigger-happy soldiers rather than a targeted assassination, but it was only the most recent in a long string of slayings of union activists–most of them carried out by militias and death squads.

Despite danger and intimidation, the campaign against the oil law is building. A second rally at Baghdad’s Liberation Square, called by the Anti-Oil Law Front for September 22, brought out hundreds–a significant achievement in an atmosphere of terror.

One of the IFC’s founding organizations, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, led a campaign against the new Constitution, which overturned the secular 1959 Personal Status Law, instead referring family disputes to Sharia courts. OWFI leader Yanar Mohammed says the Constitution is encouraging a repressive atmosphere, and acid attacks against “immodest” women who refuse to take the veil are on the rise. OWFI organizes shelters in Baghdad for women fleeing “honor killings,” which have surged under the occupation. Mohammed herself has received numerous death threats.

In addition to ZENKO, IFC solidarity groups have been established in Britain, France and South Korea. In America, US Labor Against the War has brought Iraqi union leaders on speaking tours. But there is still little awareness in the United States of Iraq’s civil resistance–even on the antiwar left.

When asked about secular civil resistance movements in Iraq, Middle East scholar Juan Cole, publisher of the popular Informed Comment blog, says, “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.” However, Achcar is encouraged by the oil workers’ struggle. “What I think would be worth supporting in Iraq is the oil and gas workers’ union in Basra,” he says. “This is a genuinely autonomous union. And they are in a very sensitive position, because the oil industry is the main resource of Iraq.”

Bennis sees hope there as well. “The oil workers union has provided one of the extraordinary models of local/national mobilization in defense of workers’ rights as well as Iraqi sovereignty and unity…. The work of US Labor Against the War, in mobilizing labor opposition to the Iraq occupation and simultaneously building support for the oil workers, also provides a model for international solidarity from the other side.”

“The occupation and puppet government in Iraq created this conflict,” says Nadia Mahmood. “They supported the militias and opened the door to terrorist networks. The US is not supporting political freedom. They just seek to loot our resources, and it’s time to go.” But she emphasizes that if the US exit is to lead to peace and a secular order, the civil resistance will need support from friends abroad. “The victory against US forces in Iraq will not be a local victory–it will be an international victory.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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