Iraq: The Existing Timetable and the Struggle for Democracy (interview Iraqi CP)

7-19-05, 8:55am

Interview with Salam Ali, international representative of the Iraqi Communist Party.

PA: What are the key tasks and struggles that the Iraqi Communist Party is undertaking right now?

SA: We are now preparing for the battle of drafting of the permanent Constitution. It should be drafted by August 15th, according to the timetable endorsed in UN Security Council Resolution 1546. Then there will be a public referendum two months later by mid-October unless the Constitution drafting committee fails to prepare a draft in time in which case the interim or this Transitional Administrative Law allows for a delay of six months to prepare another draft. If in the forthcoming referendum the draft constitution is rejected or if it is rejected by a majority in three provinces, this would mean a new election for a new National Assembly and the whole process being repeated again. So there is this possibility. But for the moment all indications show that the Constitution drafting committee will be able to finish its job by the middle of August. There are some difficulties. Our party’s represented in the 55-member drafting committee by our party leader, as well as one of three subcommittees given the job of drafting the basic principles for the constitution. This is important, but we also anticipate difficulties ahead in this process. Some Islamic fundamentalist groups in the National Assembly want to make sure that religion or Islamic law is the sole source for legislation. They want to revise the article which deals with the relationship between religion and the state in the interim constitution.

The Party believes that the interim constitution, besides some reservations, does provide a good basis for drafting the permanent Constitution. Especially on the question of basic human rights, it is far more progressive than many Constitutions in the Middle East. On the question of religion and the state, it is a good compromise that assures that Islamic law is a source for legislation and that any legislation would not contradict the tenets of Islam. But at the same time new laws should not contradict the basic rights mentioned in the interim Constitution.

This compromise if achieved in the permanent Constitution, would be a positive thing. The importance of the permanent Constitution is that it is a crucial step in the timetable for the political process. Once the permanent Constitution is endorsed by the people in the referendum in the middle of October, we’ll have elections by the end of the year or at the latest in early 2006. Then we should have an elected assembly and also a democratically elected government in effect. This will mark the end effectively of the transitional stage of the political process. And according to the UN Security Council resolution 1546, this should bring to an end the mandate for the multinational force.

So when people talk about timetables the UN Security Council Resolution does contain a timetable. But what the American administration has done and unfortunately also the Iraqi government led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari is to fudge the issue and apply for an extension of the mandate of the multinational force in the UN Security Council without referring it to the National Assembly.

It has managed to do this under the cover of the escalation of violence. Everybody was busy with the security situation, the escalation of car bombings, suicide attacks, and the counter-attack by security forces. In that period, the government of al-Jaafari without proper consultation, even inside the cabinet, went ahead and presented this proposal to the UN Security Council. All was done in haste, a matter of one day. It was endorsed in that meeting of the Security Council, which was an aggravation of the situation one year after UN Security Council Resolution 1546. We were very critical about it. In the National Assembly about 83 members signed a memorandum criticizing the government for this. They tried to hush it up.

This is one of the issues that shows the effect of the impact of the security issue on politics. People are far more concerned about their own security, the lives of their families and children. In effect they are being blackmailed. Their attention is being distracted form major issues of occupation, sovereignty, the timetable for withdrawal, the economy and so on. It is like here for example when they struck up fears about the September 11th and potential acts of terrorism and so on. With the inability of the political forces to mobilize, because of the security situation, you cannot hold mass public meetings, organize in effective ways, because of the curfews, you have to get back home to avoid trouble. Fear has dominated everything.

This is how the so-called resistance, especially the violent indiscriminate attacks against civilians, assassinations, as well as legitimate attacks have a negative impact. We don’t believe that it has really hurt the American military machine. The impact has been far greater inside America. This is the biggest problem and challenge they are facing.

As far as Iraq is concerned, the main victims are Iraqi civilians and the uniformed security forces, which are in any case are people who are seeking employment and get their $100 a month and they are paying a heavy price. They are an easy, soft target. The number of Iraqi civilians now killed on average overall is about 30 a day since the National Assembly came into being. Overall the number of casualties among Iraqis has not diminished. In Baghdad, yes, there has been a slight improvement.

We believe that military force and security operations on their own cannot resolve the problem. There is a political dimension to it, definitely. These groups have to be isolated through opening dialogue with groups that have not taken part up to now in the political process for understandable reasons, whether opposition to the occupation, fear of domination by Islamic Shi’ite groups or tactical reasons. So we are for dialogue, but not on a sectarian basis. Various political groups that do exist that do have representatives and are ready to talk should be included in the political process.

One of the positive outcomes of the election on January 30 made it clear that the so-called resistance and those who chose to use armed violence as a means to oppose occupation – I’m not talking about the fundamentalist groups or the former Ba’athists, I’m talking about a smaller proportion who either supported armed violence and attacks targeting the American military machine – there has been a change of heart. Many groups have now opened dialogue with the government and other groups who are part of the political process to find a way of getting back into the process. Of course the Americans have continued their negotiations with groups of the former Ba’ath regime, and have achieved some success.

After the elections and after shock which the democratic forces suffered in the elections, there is a movement towards finding way and means of getting together and setting up a broad coalition with the Party at the center of these moves. Some liberal groups were devastated in the elections, for example, Adnan Pachachi, who led a group called Independent Democrats. He had support from the Americans and the British. As a liberal politician, he had high hopes that he would be able to win more votes than even our Party. To the extent that he refused any attempt to set up a broad democratic coalition to stand up to the major blocs.

Back before the elections, those were our options. First, we worked for a “national unity” list, which would include various forces. We had positive indications from the Kurds, from the Islamic Shi’ite groups, but as the elections approached the Islamic Shi’ite parties and groups with the support of Sistani decided to go their own way to achieve their own agenda. The Kurds, when they saw the potential of their own grouping, decided to set up the Kurdistan bloc.

We moved to the next option. We discussed the possibility of setting up a broad democratic coalition, but in view of Pachachi’s position and some other smaller groups who decided to go on their way, we decided it was a futile exercise, unfortunately. But now these groups are coming together. This is one level of our work at the moment – to build a broad democratic election coalition rather than a broad alliance. We are now hesitant to rush into any political alliance because coming to an agreement on a program that is democratic and patriotic and patriotic is difficult. The number of groups which have come together for discussion are 22, some small some bigger.

There are now moves to organize intellectuals. Our comrade who was Minister of Culture has taken the initiative to set up an organization for the protection of intellectuals and culture. We’ve also held a conference for intellectuals on reviving culture. About 1,000 people attended.

We are working hard to rebuild our mass democratic organizations. The Iraqi Women’s League will hold a conference in mid-July, the first since the fall of Saddam. The Iraqi Democratic Youth Federation is holding a conference this month as well. One of the points we have had major difficulties with is mobilizing youth and women. It isn’t just because of the security situation but because of inherent weaknesses in our work in these fields.

The election and campaigning was a relatively new experience for the Party and Party organizations, especially the organizations that were set up after the collapse of Saddam’s regime. One of the points we have to work hard on is gaining international monitoring of the elections because it was effectively absent. In Basrah for example, it was cosmetic. A small British delegation was there, and they just endorsed what was going on. They couldn’t even go to polling stations. It was just a formality. The UN had a very small team in Baghdad, which went nowhere and couldn’t do any effective monitoring. There was an international monitoring group set up in Amman. The Americans were behind it. They monitored the elections through an Iraqi observer network set up inside Amman and it reported to them (chuckles). So it was like that.

PA: What is the danger that fundamentalist movements pose?

SA: It is basically the issue of the fight for democracy in Iraq. There is a fight against the occupation and for national sovereignty, which unites the whole political spectrum. But on the issue of democracy, fundamental human rights, and basic freedoms, here is another battle line. The groups which carried out an attack on students in Basrah in March actually belongs to Moktada Al-Sadr. His declared position is anti-occupation and last year he resorted to armed violence, but now he has joined the political process. His position on the elections was that he was against them, but many people in his movement, the Sadr movement a we call it, who are supporters of his father rather than him, took part in the elections. They were part of the Grand Islamic Shi’ite alliance. Now they have a bloc in the parliament of 23 members.

In Basrah in particular they have been trying to impose their will on the population. There is another Islamic Shi’ite group, which won the local elections in Basrah, called the Party of Virtue. This is one of the interesting outcomes of the elections. Locally, here and there, the major Islamic groups like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party came second or third and lost out to local organizations, which campaigned on purely sectarian lines and competed against the more moderate groups. In these months, they have escalated attacks on freedoms, trying to impose an Islamic dress code, for example. This has created enormous anger in more and more people, including people who had voted for the Islamic alliances in the elections. Many people form the middle strata had aspirations for freedom.

Our student organization was part of the protest movement that developed after the attack. There was a strike in the Engineering College which was backed up by other colleges and developed into quite a movement. The fundamentalists had to climb down eventually, issue an apology, and hand back the items confiscated from the students during the attack. That was an important backdown. It didn’t last long but it had enormous repercussions in other areas as well. Soon after that, one of our Party offices was attacked in Baghdad in a district that is dominated by Moktadr’s people. We have two offices there. This one was a new office. It was attacked, burnt. But later, they sent a delegation to our Party headquarters and made a statement condemning acts of violence on political freedoms. It was an attempt to disassociate themselves from that attack.

But fundamentalism poses a danger. In some areas of Baghdad, there have been attacks on barber shops, claiming that they have a bad influence on the youth with haircut styles that are too short. About twelve were killed during attacks on their shops with innocent people inside. There have been ongoing random attacks on Christian places of worship.

It hasn’t reached a critical point yet, but it is danger. In recent months we have seen liberal, media, women’s groups and others openly come out. We cannot combat these movements unless we mobilize people in the public domain. Because of the security climate, people are afraid to come out and challenge. To oppose attacks, you need people to come out for demonstrations and mobilizations too handle the situation. Unfortunately this has not taken place. The good thing is that members of the clergy from both Sunni and Shi’ite institutions have openly condemned these attacks. The moderate institutions of Sistani have also come out against attacks on personal freedom.

PA: Would you say that as long as the political process does not move toward US troop withdrawal and national sovereignty that those forces – anti-worker, anti-democratic, pro-fundamentalist forces – have a stronger hold on Iraqi society?

SA: Yes. This is why the political process is of utmost importance. We see it as the only alternative available to the Iraqi people. The danger is that if we don’t move ahead and the Americans prolong the process making use of the issue of security, this is open ended. Rumsfeld is now talking about 12 years. They could come up next year and say well, Iraq’s security forces are not strong enough yet, and we need to be there to finish the job. The problem is that some of the political forces that have their own narrow agenda would break ranks and side with the Americans. You can detect signs of that. This is why we have come out against al-Jaafari’s move recently. He has justified it by saying that Iraqi security forces are not ready yet. This is closely linked with the question of national sovereignty. Unless you seize control over the process of reconstructing these institutions, and not only that but ensuring that they are rebuilt properly and without interference form the Americans and not along sectarian lines, this will be a vicious cycle and continue and will definitely serve the agenda of the American administration.

PA: Does al-Jaafari endanger himself politically by making this move?

SA: He will undermine his political position even in the Islamic Alliance. We must remember that in choosing him to the post of prime minister by the Islamic Alliance was not easy or straight forward. A big battle took place and was only resolved by Sistani’s personal intervention.

If this situation continues and the government of al-Jaafari fails to deliver on its promises, and it made big promises not only security but on basic services and unemployment, he will pay a political price. Knowing Iraqi politics, they will resort to dirty tactics. They will find ways to divert attention to dramatize, to use the security situation to the utmost.

The question of the timetable for withdrawal is important for us. We think there is already a time frame in the UN Security Council Resolution. This government has certain sovereign rights it can exercise if it wants to, but it lacks the political will to do so. They could have impact on the negotiations with the Americans under the auspices of the United Nations to arrive at a timetable which would satisfy the Iraqi people’s demands, work on the issue of rebuilding the institutions, settle the security issue, and also the political process. Why should it be open-ended? And the way Bush behaved in the meeting with al-Jaafari, it was humiliating really. Somebody asked about a timetable, and he said something like, “just forget about it.” Very arrogant, and they get away with it, because in Iraq the people are totally distracted by the violence. I mentioned before there is always a patriotic element in the resistance movement, but it is small. We estimate this to be maybe 5 to 10 percent no more of the overall operations that take place. The problem there is that such groups haven’t manifested themselves politically yet. These attacks are random and directed only at American troops rather than at Iraq security forces or civilians, this is what makes the distinction. They don’t have a political agenda, but this element is there, and people know that it is distinct from the operations carried out by the former Ba’athists who don’t give a damn for the consequences. They just want to strike a deal with the Americans and get their people back into the Constitution writing, the government. The same with the Islamic fundamentalist groups. There is every evidence that there is collaboration between the two groups on the operational level. The former intelligence officers play a crucial role in planning and organization.

PA: Would you say these sections of the insurgency aren’t anti-occupation as much as they are trying to strengthen their political hand or maneuver within the political situation they have already come to accept will come form the Americans?

SA: Yes. You mean the former Ba’athists?

PA: And the fundamentalists.

SA: The fundamentalists are different. The extreme fundamentalists groups are for their own jihadist idea about an Islamic state. They want to fight a war in Iraq because the Americans are there, and they justify it with their fundamentalist creed. But this does not have much support inside Iraq, and as more and more Sunni groups join the political process and decide that it is futile to be outside of it, because they will lose out like the Islamic Shi’ite groups did in the early 20th century under British colonialism. They are coming back.

The problem is the American policy has reinforced these divisions. When Condoleezza Rice calls them Arab Sunni, well, what Arab Sunni groups are you talking about exactly? For the American administration this is cover for enticing and getting back former Ba’athists.

PA: It also seems to be a means of generating public support by painting a broad stroke over the whole scene. Clouding the issues seems to create a feeling that Iraq is simply a dangerous place and the occupation is justified. Put the administration aren’t the only ones to paint pictures of Iraq in broad strokes. Some on the left are still saying the “resistance” in Iraq is like the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, or it is like the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and thus they deserve our support. How would you comment on that?

SA: This perception has nothing to support it in the real situation in Iraq. It doesn’t exist. It’s a myth. It’s very dangerous as well to think this and to draw on experiences of the past and other countries like Vietnam or South Africa. It’s erroneous. Go back in history and see how and why these movements developed. You only need to examine the political agenda of these groups. What do they stand for compared to the national liberation movement in Vietnam or the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, it makes a mockery. The Islamic fundamentalist groups in Iraq are for religious despotism and religious state and may be worse than even Saddam. All of these groups experiences have shown it – in Afghanistan – and have later shown to have been conducive to the objectives of US imperialism in every sense of the word. Go back to the Afghanistan jihadi war against the Soviet Union; it was backed and financed by Americans and Saudis and so on. There’s nothing progressive in that; I can’t see anything. Ba’athists? What alternative are they presenting? They are fighting this war to regain or protect their privileges. They are striking deals with the Americans and once they do that everything will be fine.

This is why the Americans are confident they will get them to join in eventually. Allawi is working hard to do this. There were reports that Ibrahimi was involved in some of these efforts as the UN envoy to Iraq. With the American administration supporting the return of Sunni Arabs to use their broad term, they are effectively sanctioning these contacts even with some armed groups. They don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. If we go back even before the collapse of Saddam Hussein, all the American administration wanted before was to achieve a palace coup d’etat with the regime intact. They had no problems with Saddam’s intelligence and security, and if things had worked out – without the stupidity of the Pentagon – they would have simply rehabilitated the intelligence and security apparatus. Those people have no problems with the Americans. You can detect no hostility by meeting figures of Saddam’s regime who are now in detention. Saddam himself has no hostility towards Bush.

PA: Are they hoping that some political deal could be made?

SA: Yes. That was the mentality just be before the war. They thought the Americans would come and they could strike a deal in exchange for oil or something. This is a total misconception. This will not turn into a Vietnam War. How could it with the situation as it is, with Iraq society as it is? When you had 8 million out of 14 million come out for the elections, isn’t that an indication? What does that mean? At worst, Iraq society is divided. 60 percent decided to take a risk and take part in the political process. If the security situation was better in the other provinces, there would have been 30 to 40 percent participation there, and this would have changed the picture politically. We hope it will in the next election.

So it’s a myth. The biggest damage is that it distorts the picture. It doesn’t help in understanding the situation and doesn’t help to develop solidarity with the democratic and anti-occupation forces. Do they have communication and contacts with this national liberation movement? In Vietnam, I think, everybody knew what they stood for, their political program, they had objectives. They were not ghosts. The same with the anti-apartheid movement. The parallel does not fit.

The dynamics of this could change. Let’s predict some possibilities. If the Americans decide to continue the occupation regardless of the political process and the situation remains bad and no real control is held by Iraqis, and the American administration draws it out, then the situation could change.

PA: But that would reflect Iraqi views on a wide scale not just the views of a small group of people?

SA: Of course. It would be on a massive scale. I think the Americans understand that, for example, when they wanted to force through their own concept of elections and the interim assembly, it failed. There was no consent.