The Secular Left Opposition Stands Up

by Bill Weinberg, WW4 Report

July 4, 2007 saw the Fred Hampton-style execution of the leader of a popular citizen’s self-defense force in Baghdad. According to the Iraq Freedom Congress, the group Abdelhussein Saddam was associated with, a unit of US Special Forces troops and Iraqi National Guards raided his home in Baghdad’s Alattiba neighborhood at 3:00 AM, throwing grenades in before them—and opening fire without warning at him and his young daughter. The attackers took Saddam, leaving the girl bleeding on the floor. Two days later, his body was found in the morgue at Yarmouk Hospital.

Abdelhussein had been the leader of the Safety Force, a civil patrol organized by the IFC civil resistance coalition to protect their communities. Like many IFC leaders, he had been an opponent of the Saddam Hussein regime, and was imprisoned for two years in the ’90s. Head of the Safety Force since late last year, his death went unnoted by the world media.

But on Aug. 3, some 100 activists from the Japanese anti-war 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? Abdelhussein found out!”

Among those speaking were two IFC leaders who had flown in for the 37th annual Zenko conference. IFC president Samir Adil addressed the rally: “Because he said ‘no Sunni, no Shi’ite, yes to human identity,’ because he wanted to build a civil society in Iraq without occupation, without sectarian militias—for that they killed Abdelhussein. 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 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: an end to the occupation, and a secular state for Iraq. Zenko’s most significant achievement over the past year has been the raising of $400,000 which allowed 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 Shi’ite 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.”

Sana TV: Voice of Progressive Iraq

The protest was given extra urgency by news that another IFC figure, Prof. Mohammed Jasam, had been killed the previous day in an ambush on the road from Baghdad to Siwera. The killers were this time presumably members of an as yet unidentified sectarian militia. Jasam had been a reporter and commentator on labor issues for Sana TV, which began broadcasting in this spring in Arabic, Kurdish and English, with studios in Baghdad and London.

Mahmood says Sana TV regularly produces programming on labor struggles, women’s concerns, and the impact of the occupation on Iraqi society. Its Baghdad studio continues to face material challenges—such as unreliable electricity, necessitating on-site generators. Mahmood says Sana TV hopes to build “mobile studios” for Iraq, citing the threat of attack from either occupation forces or sectarian militias.

The US supports its own TV networks in Iraq, while Iran and the Gulf states have satellite stations operating in the country that promote Shi’ite and Sunni political Islam, respectively. Yet it is Sana TV which has been singled out for attack.

The Baghdad office which serves as Sana TV’s studio and the IFC headquarters was raided by US troops on June 7. The premises were damaged when the soldiers forced down the door, and five of the office’s guards were arrested and their weapons confiscated. Documents were also seized. September 2006 saw a more violent raid, in which a mixed force of US and Iraqi troops ransacked the office, destroying furniture and equipment and confiscating records and documents, according to the IFC.

Mahmood and Adil say the IFC is becoming more of a threat because of its growing successes—uniting with organized labor to oppose the pending privatization of Iraq’s oil, bringing together secular anti-occupation forces in a common front, and liberating space in Baghdad and other cities from rule by sectarian militias.

Autonomous Zones of Co-Existence

While Adil says the 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 they are not insurgents, and the IFC is pursuing a civil struggle. “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, turned the country into an international battlefield.”

He also cites the human cost—and the potential to build solidarity with the American citizenry. “In four years of occupation, there are 3,500 US troops dead and perhaps a quarter of a million Iraqis. There is no difference between the pain of Cindy Sheehan and mothers in Iraq.” And finally a tactical consideration: “It is not so easy to attack the civil resistance.”

Adil is a veteran of political struggle against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and a follower of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, founded after Operation Desert Storm to oppose both the regime and US designs on the Persian Gulf region. Born in Baghdad in 1964, he was imprisoned for six months in 1992 for labor activities in the construction trade. He was tortured in prison—he never removes his cap, but a long scar can be seen extending down his scalp to his temple. Supporters in Canada launched an international campaign which finally won his release. Realizing he was no longer safe in Saddam’s Iraq, he fled first to the Kurdish zone, then Turkey, and finally Canada. He returned to Iraq in December 2005 to help revive an independent political opposition.

Adil is clear that this opposition faces two enemies: the occupation and what he calls “political Islam”—a Sunni wing linked to al-Qaeda and supported by Saudi Arabia, and Shi’ite militias with varying degrees of support from Iran. These have turned Baghdad into a patchwork of ethnically cleansed, hostile camps. The IFC includes secular Muslims (and non-believers) of both Sunni and Shi’ite background in its leadership, as well as Kurds and people of mixed heritage. Adil claims the IFC now has a presence in 20 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 Oct. 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 al-Awaithia last September, is an island of co-existence in a city torn by sectarian cleansing, says Adil. Thanks to the Safety Force, the district has become a no-go zone for the sectarian militias. “There has been no sectarian killing in Husseinia since September 2006,” Adil boasts. Despite the slaying of Abdelhussein Saddam, the Safety Force is continuing to grow, he says, with new training sessions underway.

The IFC is now establishing a second self-governing zone in Baghdad’s Husseinia, also a mixed Sunni-Shi’ite district that militias on either side are trying to cleanse. The IFC’s first autonomous zone was established in late 2005 in a community they dubbed al-Tzaman (Solidarity) in the northern city of Kirkuk. Al-Tzaman has a mixed population of 5,000 Sunni Arabs, Christians, Turcomans and Kurds.

Adil is clear on where he places the blame for the crisis of violent sectarianism in Iraq. “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.” He calls the IFC’s success in carving out zones of co-existence a testament to “the power of the people.”

In addition to securing the IFC’s self-governing zones, the Safety Force is active throughout Baghdad. In April, a sniper started shooting at children attempting to flee a school in Alatba’a suburb when fighting between US troops and insurgents was closing in on the district; the Safety Force arrived, calmed the students and teachers, promised to defend them, and established a perimeter around the school until the danger passed. When residents in Babalmuadham district sought to prevent the Shi’ite Mahdi militia from establishing a camp there, they called on the Safety Force, which secured the area and confronted the militiamen, who retreated. The Safety Force has worked to protect residents from looters who take advantage of the chaos when fighting breaks out.

A related effort, IFC Doctors, has started to provide free health services from the IFC headquarters in Baghdad, as well as forming traveling teams to provide treatment off-site for people who cannot reach the office.

The Safety Force is increasingly made up of trade unionists, a growing pillar of support for the IFC. In November 2006, the General Federation of Trade Unions-Iraq (GFTU-I) merged with the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), already an IFC member organization. Workers from both groups have volunteered for the SF. And more unions are joining with the IFC’s new campaign against Iraq’s pending US-written oil law, which would grant unprecedentedly free access to foreign multinationals.

Struggle for the Oil

In a Sept. 8 press conference in Basra, representatives of the IFC’s Anti-Oil Law Front joined with leaders of Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU) to warn the Iraqi parliament against passing the draft oil law. IFOU president Hassan Jumaa, 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, and is prepared to halt operations entirely if the Anti-Oil Law Front calls for a strike. Five days earlier, the Front staged a protest in Baghdad’s Liberation Square. US forces surrounded the rally, blocking access to the square, and took pictures of the protesters who carried banners reading “The oil law is the law of occupation.”

An IFOU march against the oil law in Basra on July 16 brought out thousands, with simultaneous protests in Amara and Nassiryya. Local governate officials made statements in support of their demands. The 26,000-strong IFOU calls for immediate and complete withdrawal of all occupation forces from Iraq, and has already demonstrated its muscle. On June 4, it went on strike for four days to protest the oil law and demand the release of delayed benefits due workers, paralyzing the Basra-Baghdad pipeline.

Four IFOU leaders, including Hassan Jumaa, were ordered arrested for “sabotaging the Iraqi economy.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had averted a strike in May by promising dialogue in a meeting with IFOU leaders, now warned he would meet threats to oil production “with an iron fist.” The arrest orders, never formally dropped, hadn’t been carried out when the strike ended. But a heavy presence of Iraqi army troops remained in Basra, surrounding and blocking marches by the oil workers. The government recently threatened to carry out the arrest orders if the unions go ahead with a new strike to protest the oil law.

“The oil law does not represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people,” Hassan Jumaa said at a May press conference. “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 oil fields.”

The IFOU, which is demanding the resignation of the general manager of the Southern Oil Company for corruption, also went on strike over these demands in September 2006. It has carried out its own reconstruction work on rigs, ports, pipelines and refineries since the invasion with minimal, mostly local resources.

Iraq’s labor leaders are, of course, targeted for repression and death.

On Sept. 18—just two days after the notorious Blackwater massacre in Baghdad—IFOU announced that an engineer and leading union member, Talib Naji Abboud, was killed in an “unprovoked attack” by US forces on Basra’s Rumaila oilfields. Sabah Jawad of the IFOU’s support committee in the UK says the troops opened fire on his car without warning while he was on his way to work—admitting that it could have just been a case of “trigger-happy” soldiers rather than a targeted assassination.

In al-Aadhamiya, outside Baghdad, municipal workers started a strike August 30 to protest the raid of their offices by US troops. The soldiers broke doors and windows and smashed the employees’ desks, under the pretext of a general search for arms in the municipality.

In February, US-led forces twice raided the Baghdad offices of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW), destroying office equipment and arresting a member of the union’s security staff. Also that month, the Iraq Syndicate of Journalists was raided, and computers and membership records were confiscated.

In January, militia gunmen abducted eight Oil Ministry engineers on their way to a FWCUI press conference on fuel price increases. Four were released, but one engineer, Abdukareem Mahdi, was later found dead, with signs of torture. The other three remain missing and are presumed dead. Days later, FWCUI organizer Mohammed Hameed was among a group of 15 civilians who were randomly gunned down in a marketplace in southern Baghdad.

In July 2006, Kurdish security forces in Suleimanyia opened fire on striking workers at a cement factory, leaving three dead and more wounded. A month later, sectarian militias in Mahmoodya, near Baghdad, assassinated the local secretary of the health workers union and IFC member Tariq Mahdi. Ali Hassan Abd (better known as Abu Fahad), a leader at the Southern Oil Company’s refinery, was gunned down while walking home with his young children in February 2005. That same month, Ahmed Adris Abbas, a leader in Baghdad’s transport union, was assassinated by a hit squad in the city’s Martyrs’ Square.

Yet despite danger and intimidation, the effort against the oil law is building. A second rally at Baghdad’s Liberation Square called by the Anti-Oil Law Front Sept. 22 brought out hundreds—a significant achievement in an atmosphere of terror.

For a Secular State

An incident which helped spark the IFC’s founding came in March 2005, when a Christian female student was physically attacked by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia at a campus picnic at Basra University, and a male student who came to her defense was shot and killed. Thousands of students marched in protest, a solidarity march was held by students in Suleimanyia, and the Mahdi militia was driven from the campus. These struggles led to the establishment of the National Federation of Student Councils, another IFC member organization.

Another of the IFC’s founding organizations, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), led a campaign against Iraq’s new constitution. Article 41 of the new constitution overturned the more secular 1959 Personal Status Law, enshrined as Article 118 of the old constitution, which barred gender discrimination. The new measure instead refers family disputes to sharia courts—Shi’ite or Sunni depending on the affiliation of the litigants. In 2004, a campaign by OWFI and allied groups—including street protests—succeeded in keeping the sharia measure out of the draft constitution, by a narrow vote of the then-Governing Council. However, a basically identical measure is in the permanent constitution approved by referendum the following year. OWFI believes the sharia courts will mean denial of divorce, inheritance and child custody rights to women.

OWFI leader Yanar Mohammed says the new constitution is encouraging an atmosphere in which acid attacks are on the rise even in once-secular Baghdad against “immodest” women who refuse to take the abaya (Iraq’s version of the veil). The Mahdi Army as well as its rival Sunni militias publicly flog and even hang women accused of “adultery” (which can include having been raped). Last year, OWFI sent teams to Baghdad’s morgue under cover of searching for missing relatives to reveal the horrific nature of Iraq’s reality. They found that hundreds of unclaimed women’s corpses turning up monthly at the morgue—many beheaded, disfigured or bearing signs of extreme torture.

OWFI runs a shelter in Baghdad for women fleeing “honor killings,” which have surged under the occupation. Mohammed, of course, has received numerous death threats.

The draft constitution for the Kurdish region also includes a measure recognizing sharia law as a foundation for legislation. OWFI’s spokesperson for the Kurdish region, Houzan Mahmoud, has also received e-mailed death threats—even as she pursues her education at the University of London.

Samir Adil says sectarian militias and US troops alike tear down IFC posters reading “No Sunni, no Shi’ite, occupation is the enemy.”

Appeal for Solidarity

In addition to Zenko, IFC solidarity groups have been established in the UK, France and South Korea. In America, US Labor Against the War has brought Iraqi union leaders on speaking tours. IFOU general-secretary Faleh Abood Umara was in Ohio on tour with USLAW when the arrest order was issued against him in the summer. The American Friends Service Committee also brought Samir Adil on a tour of the Northeast in 2006.

But there is still little awareness in the US about Iraq’s civil resistance. The dichotomized vision of occupation-vs-Islamist insurgents infects the mainstream as well as the anti-war forces. In its efforts to groom proxies, as with the Sunni “Guardians” in Anbar, the US is exacerbating the civil war—co-opting one gang of tribal reactionaries to fight against another. Meanwhile, when a progressive and secular self-defense force emerges—in opposition to the occupation, rather than collaboration, giving it real legitimacy—the US executes its leader. And the anti-war movement remains largely oblivious.

When asked about secular civil resistance movements in Iraq, Middle East scholar Juan Cole, publisher of the popular Informed Comment blog, says: “I don’t know of any significant such groups; they don’t show up in the Arabic language newspapers I read, and nobody votes secular when they vote… 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—or even bankruptcy, because of very wrong policies in some cases—the overwhelming forces in the mass movement have been of a very different nature, mainly Islamic fundamentalist forces. Iraq is a country where you have had historically a very powerful communist party with a tradition of building workers’ movements and all that, and one would have hoped that this would at least lead to the survival of a progressive current—but the problem is that the communist party joined the governing council set up by Bremer and ruined its credibility as an anti-imperialist force by doing so.”

Achcar also takes a dim view of the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq. The WCPI was founded in 1991 in response to Desert Storm, the demise of the Soviet Union and emergence of the US as the single superpower, viewing these developments as mandating a return to militant workers’ self-organization in the Persian Gulf region. Samir Adil and other IFC leaders are followers of the Worker-Communist Party, which views the Iraqi regime as illegitimate and collaborationist. But in Achcar’s view, the Worker-Communist Party’s anti-clericalism is too dogmatic. “They have a discourse which is very violently opposed to all Islam—not only Islamic fundamentalism,” he says. “They have formulas that would be provocative for ordinary Muslim believers, I would say. They denounce Islamic fundamentalist forces, but they don’t take the necessary precaution of clearly making a distinction between these currents and the religion of Islam.”

The IFC, however, insist that they also have secular and progressive Muslims in their leadership. Recently, the IFC has held meetings with traditional tribal leaders in Basra province, issuing joint statements of unity against the occupation and Oil Law. In any case, the decision to launch the IFC has prompted a split in the WCPI, with the hard-liners who reject coalition politics leaving to form a “Left-Worker Communist Party of Iraq.”

Achcar does acknowledge worthwhile work by WCPI followers. “They organized activities on the women issue, and a trade union movement,” he says. “I mean, when you look at the landscape in Iraq, they are much more progressive than most of what you’ve got.”

And Achcar urges support for the oil workers, with whom the IFC are now allied. “What I think would be worth support in Iraq is the oil and gas workers union in Basra,” he says. “This is a genuine union, a genuinely autonomous union, not the off-shoot of any party. And they are in a very sensitive position because the oil industry is the main resource of Iraq, and that’s the main target of the occupation, of course. Therefore I think they deserve strong support in their fight, which is presently concentrated on opposing the privatization plans or designs concerning the oil industry…”

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. Certainly Iraqis have the right under international law to fight against an illegal military occupation, including through use of military force—but that has never been the only kind of 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.”

She too sees hope in the struggle of the oil workers. “The oil workers union has provided one of the extraordinary models of local/national mobilization in defense of workers rights as well as defense of Iraqi sovereignty and unity (through the unions’ opposition to the US-drafted oil law which would privatize a huge part of Iraq’s oil industry). The international solidarity mobilized by the oil workers unions, particularly among trade unionists in Europe and the US, has provided an important model of how that kind of cross-border collaboration can take shape. The work of US Labor Against the War, in mobilizing labor opposition to the Iraq occupation and simultaneously building support for the Iraqi oil workers, also provides a model for international solidarity from the other side.”

That the work of the IFC goes largely unnoticed outside Iraq is particularly ironic in light of Bush’s recent statement that there can be no “instant democracy in Iraq” because “Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.” As the death of Abdelhussein Saddam indicates, Bush is continuing the work of Saddam Hussein in eliminating progressive Iraqis who support co-existence. However, despite the best of his efforts, they are not all dead yet.

“The occupation and puppet government in Iraq created this conflict,” says Nadia Mahmood. “They supported the militias and opened the door to terrorist networks to come and function in Iraq. Before the war, George Bush said he had to invade Iraq because of al-Qaeda—but what happened was al-Qaeda came after the occupation. They control many cities in Iraq and are imposing the most reactionary practices on the civil population. Before, Iran had no role in Iraq, but now we see the Iranian government empowering militias in many cities in Iraq, especially in Basra. The US is not supporting political freedom in Iraq. They just seek to loot our resources, and its time to go.”

But she emphasizes that if the US exit is to lead to peace and a secular order, the civil resistance will also need support from friends abroad. “The victory against US forces in Iraq will not be a local victory—it will be an international victory.”


A shorter version of this story appeared Dec. 24 in The Nation, and also ran on AlterNet and US Labor Against the War.


Iraq Freedom Congress

Organization of Womens’ Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)

Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI)

General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFIW)

General Union of Oil Employees in Basra-IFOU

Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI)

Left Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (LWCPI)

National Organization for the Iraqi Freedom Struggles (NO-IFS)

See also:

Oil & Utility Union Leaders on the Struggle Against Privatization
from Building Bridges, WBAI Radio
WW4 Report, July 2007

From our weblog:

Iraq: public-sector workers launch sit-in campaign
WW4 Report, Dec. 23, 2007


Special to World War 4 Report, Jan. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution