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Part 2

An Interview with Issam Shukri of the Union of Unemployed in Iraq

by Bill Weinberg

On March 30, Issam Shukri, who recently led protests by unemployed workers in Baghdad with a new organization, the Union of Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), spoke at the downtown Manhattan offices of AFSCME Local 1707, where he was hosted by local supporters. An exile in Toronto, Shukri returned to Iraq to help organize the thousands of workers thrown out of their jobs in the chaos of the post-Saddam collapse. After his presentation that evening, he spoke with WW3 REPORT editor Bill Weinberg on his weekly midnight talk show, the Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, on listener-supported WBAI, 99.5 FM.

BW: We are extremely honored to have a special guest with us tonight, Issam Shukri, of the Union of Unemployed in Iraq. He's going to be speaking about his organizing efforts both in Iraq and on this side of the Atlantic as well. Welcome aboard, Issam.

IS: Thank you very much.

BW: Can you start by telling us a little something about yourself? You've been living in Toronto?

IS: Yes, I left Baghdad in 1991, right after the first Gulf War for a host of reasons, but the economic reasons were the most pressing at the time--because of the sanctions that the US imposed as part of the agreement for Sadaam to surrender in that war. (It wasn't really a war, it was more of an attack, and a lot of destruction happened.) I saw things were deteriorating rapidly in Iraq. So I thought that leaving could give me a chance to be more prepared to work and be active in defending the people of Iraq. At least I would be away from the oppression of the regime itself, as any political activity of any kind was forbidden, or heavily prosecuted. So I went to Lebanon, which was itself just trying to heal from 20 years of civil war, and I became active in the anti-sanctions movement. And when I came to Canada, which is my home now, I started to get involved in the anti-war movements and the opposition to the US policies against the people of Iraq--especially the sanctions and the deprivation that they imposed on the people of Iraq for so many years under the pretext of fighting Sadaam. And in the end a half million people perished because of this policy, but the US couldn't achieve its goals. So it's even more painful and more cynical that after all these massacres and genocide, the Iraqi people still had to wait to be invaded and humiliated and find themselves under occupation. So when in Toronto I started to work on my newsletter, called "Anti-sanctions."

BW: Still going?

IS: Actually no, once the invasion happened I thought it lost its real value because the it became a different issue. I started to shift focus as the drums of war were beating. Around October 2002, I started to mobilize around protesting the war, along with the anti-war movement in Toronto. However, I started to realize that the anti-war movement was inflicted with elements that I couldn't accept as progressive. So I, along with other friends, decided to form the Progressive Coalition Against War and Sanctions Against Iraq, which had different kind of approach, to try to give a more human face to the anti-war movement.

BW: Could you explain more about the difference?

IS: Definitely. Elements of political Islam were hijacking the cause, that the US government was oppressing the people of Iraq.

BW: In Canada?

IS: In Canada, yes. They were infiltrating the demonstrations under the pretext that they are anti-imperialist, and they want to promote their political movement in these demonstrations. My friends in those demonstrations kept saying, "we are a peaceful movement." And I'd say--but you are allying with people who are not peaceful at all, who promote an ideology that is opposed to human rights in general, that is oppressive and misogynist. They promote a means of struggle that is based on terrorism--or I could say counter-terrorism, because I believe that the world now is torn between these two poles of terrorism: the state terrorism and the political Islamic terrorism, which is stunning people all over the world with its actions, its indifference to humanity, killing people cold-bloodedly. The blood is still fresh in Madrid. The atrocities that they're committing make them no different than the US army which bombed Iraq and killed hundreds and hundreds of people, collapsed bridges, demolished homes. Just like the state of Israel, with its crushing destruction of the Palestinians, just like the Islamic factions that are opposing the state of Israel. People are stuck between two sides in a war organized and launched by two vicious powers that have no consideration for humanity whatsoever. They can step on thousands of people in order to achieve their political goals.

The group I formed with some friends, some labor activists in Toronto, agreed on an outline that says no to both. No to the US but also no to political Islamic terrorism that is trying to hijack the cause of the anti-war movement. So we formed our platform, we called people, and we started to march along with the other groups, as there are a diversity of groups opposing the war. And we got the support of many Iraqis, of many Canadians and progressive groups in the United States. This is what we believe in. It's the people's mandate to end terrorism--it's not the mandate of the US, because it's a participant in that sickening game of bombing and killing and threatening. I have two nephews in Baghdad, and when I went back last May, they told me about the sound bombs that the US army used for six or seven days on Baghdad, just to scare people.

BW: Sound bombs?

IS: Yes, sound bombs. You remember the "shock and awe" thing? The whole thing was to create fear in people's hearts. If you can imagine that Baghdad is a city of six million, with probably two million children who do not understand what this is all about, who probably don't understand who Sadaam is, and you scare them, inflict this injury on their souls for the rest of their life. They are still jumping out of their beds, their mother told me that they're still having nightmares. They hid under the stairs for five or six hours during the bombing, they burst into tears. I'm talking about teenagers here, I'm not talking about a five-year-old. Teenagers who didn't understand what was going on as these bombs exploded with such force that they smashed the windows. So I don't make a difference between this kind of terror that the US army inflicted on the people of Iraq. As far as I'm concerned as a union organizer, I'm trying my best to help sustain Iraqi civil society, and to maintain some basis of respecting the human being, of respecting women, of respecting children. So our means of struggle springs from that kind of platform.

BW: What had you been doing in Iraq before you left?

IS: I actually graduated from the school of architecture at the University of Baghdad and practiced architecture for some time before I had to leave and choose another country because I couldn't make it in Iraq with the wars, with the repression of the regime, with the sanctions that were imposed on us while Sadaam was living in luxury, and while American officials and the government knew that he was living in luxury and the Iraqis were going down the drain. I was working, and I was considered highly-paid compared to the average Iraqi workers. So if I couldn't buy milk for my five-year-old at the time, just imagine how the average Iraqi could survive. And I'm talking about 1992.

BW: Things got much worse subsequently.

IS: Exactly. So this situation forced me to go out and seek better conditions for myself. And actually I don't regret that because it allowed me to see the world. It allowed me to contact people who are supportive, who are humane. I learned from them, I learned a lot of things that helped me to get back to Iraq with a different frame of mind and different enthusiasm about supporting the working people in Iraq.

BW: So you've been back recently?

IS: Yes, I was back right after the invasion by the US troops and the fall of the regime. I participated in forming the Union of the Unemployed. I was also a part of the efforts to form the preparatory committee for the new workers councils and unions in Iraq. I'm also a member of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, which is a radical women's organization seeking equality between women and men in Iraq. We work closely because we believe that women's issues in Iraq are worker's issues, and are human issues, and are universal issues that you cannot separate from the whole well-being of humanity. If any part of human society is in pain or is mistreated, then I believe it's our mandate as human beings to try to organize and collect our efforts in order to defend this part that has been attacked. And in Iraq, I can tell you Bill, that women are under severe attack by the people who claim that they are coming to liberate, are coming to bring a modern new Iraq, or get rid of repression.

BW: Why don't you tell us more about the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq?

IS: As you know, the war on Iraq has made the Iraqi people live in poverty. This poverty is caused by the collapse of the economy and physical infrastructure of the country from one side; and on the other, the insecurity that prevailed after the war, the lack of a government or any body that could provide the least of the citizens' requirements like security, like means of livelihood. There was a huge civil society with almost 25 million people, with schools, universities, unions, what have you... The citizens of Iraq were attacked in the streets, were looted... And the workers, the most fragile majority of Iraq, found themselves in the double hardship of poverty from one side and lack of security from the other side. They couldn't even go out of their houses. They are starving and their children are crying but they cannot go out and seek work. And when they are successful in reaching their old factory where they used to work, it was closed down due to lack of electricity, or lack of raw materials that are necessary to resume the industry. So there was a condition where the unemployed needed to do something about their lives. And we gathered in the old workers' union building which was totally looted and burned, and we decided that we should form the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq.

BW: So the old union structure had collapsed as well?

IS: Yes. Actually it was a phony union that was controlled by Sadaam Hussein's regime. It was a union that, rather than protecting the rights of workers, actually prevented them from having their rights. For instance, the prevailing law in Iraq in Sadaam Hussein's regime banned the workers from having strikes, or freedom of association or protests. And in 1987 it removed their ID as workers. Sadaam Hussein viewed workers as a hassle because workers always seek to have their rights to protest, to have better wages, and Sadaam wanted to break their backs with a 12-hour working day, or by sending them to the front in a fight that didn't belong to them.

BW: The war with Iran you mean?

IS: The war with Iran. So all these things created a rumble in the worker's ranks.

BW: What was the official union actually called?

IS: It was called the General Confederation of Iraqi Workers

BW: That was a Ba'ath party entity?

IS: It was. And the funny thing, Bill, is that elements of this union are coming back under the US authority in Iraq.

BW: Yes, we'll get to that historical irony

IS: But as I say, we gathered there and we called for a general assembly for all unemployed workers in Baghdad at the time.

BW: This was when?

IS: This was on May 1, 2003. We elected a committee, which in turn had elected a president for itself. And we set up a little office inside that burnt building, and we started to assign people for different departments in the union.

BW: This initial meeting was attended by how many, would you say?

IS: Around 200 people, who came from different neighborhoods in Baghdad and who were so enthusiastic about joining this union because the destitution of workers was so severe that they needed to do something about it. We wrote up a program in which we said we oppose the invasion of Iraq, we oppose the occupation of Iraq, from a point of view which is different from the nationalists or the Ba'ath loyalists. We said that the invasion of Iraq had created a dark scenario for the Iraqi people, it had created misery and hunger and unemployment. We warned of privatization of hospitals, of health care, of schools, of universities--which they are now attempting. We warned of the so-called "free economy" measures which would be very harsh and brutal on workers in Iraq. At that point, the workers were dissipated and fragmented, so it would be even harder to resist the free market economy, which means mass unemployment and lower wages for the majority of workers.

So our statement put forth the main goals of our union, which by the way, we don't want to maintain--this union is an answer to the emergency situation. Once our demands are fulfilled by the authorities--and the Americans were the true authority of Iraq at the time--we said this organization would no longer be needed. And our two major demands were providing jobs for unemployed people in Iraq, and providing social or unemployment benefits for people who are not employed. So these were the main demands in all our struggles, including some fourteen demonstrations in front of the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority], the civil administration in Iraq, and a 46-day sit-in protest in front of the CPA which ended with a festival which was a real celebration for workers and families.

BW: That was when?

IS: That was at the beginning of August 2003 and the sit-in ended on September 13, 2003. During this time we had many of our leaders arrested by the US forces for allegedly breaking the curfew by staying in the tent overnight. They were imprisoned and very harshly treated. We documented all that, and we held a protest against the practices of the US army against our members.

BW How many participated in the sit-in?

IS: The people who stayed overnight were usually were around 50 to 100--the first day it was around 100. However there was a US sergeant at the site and he warned me that if they were going to stay they were going to be put in jail. The first time they came around one in the morning and they toppled all the water containers. At that time in Iraq the weather was extremely harsh and it was very dry and the temperatures were very, very high, so people get dehydrated easily. The soldiers toppled the barrels of water, trying to break the will of the workers and make them return home. But the workers remained in their tent and they said, "We are not going anywhere, because you are the rulers of Iraq now, you are the authority, and we demand that you provide at least the minimum standard of life, and save our children from hunger and destitution," etc. However, they came with a bigger force after two hours, at around three AM-- around twelve soldiers, fully armed, and they arrested around 56 and put them in jail. The treatment that they faced was extremely outrageous and inhumane.

BW: How long were they imprisoned?

IS: They were in prison for 14 hours.

BW: On charges of curfew violation?

IS: Yes

BW: This was still in August?

IS: That was the first day of the sit-in protest, which was I think, August 3. Of course, the CPA knew about us because we held 13 demonstrations at their gates, and the whole atmosphere changed in Baghdad. The media were talking about unemployment, everyone was shouting unemployment, what's the problem?, why isn't the US tackling this problem? They jumped from talking about things that are totally alienated to Iraqis, like the politics of Shi'ite and Sunni and Muslims and Kurds, which doesn't really touch the people's lives, and they don't care about. The atmosphere changed to more a real one because of these demonstrations, because of our voices. Suddenly people started to talk about poverty, about the class gap between the workers and the elite, which the US army nurtured and polished. This US-backed elite was chosen to reflect these ethnic and religious divisions among the people of Iraq, but we said that these divisions are false. Our message for the workers was not only economical struggle but also a political struggle to save the people of Iraq from falling in the trap of this kind of language, of tagging Iraqis as being Sunni or Shi'ite. The media portrayal of these [Shi'ite] rituals with blood coming out of their heads--this is all propaganda to create this kind of division among the Iraqi workers.. But we changed all of that then.

So when we entered the presidential palace, which is the CPA headquarters, the people there knew us well. And we had around 160,000 registered unemployed in our records. We went there with the records in our hands, and they said, "Who are you, who do you represent? You are nobody, we are the power here." I pulled out the records and said, "Look, there are 160,000 people registered, and we can mobilize these people and you cannot but to attend to our demands."

Our resources were very poor and very limited but we had a car, we put our slogans on it, we put our flag on it, we had a megaphone, and we had music. This car was touring the neighborhoods, calling the unemployed people to come and join our ranks. This was to the dislike of the Islamists who wanted to create a Islamic republic in Iraq modeled after the Islamic republic of Iran and after the sheikhs of Saudi Arabia. But we work hard against this scenario because we believe this is a scenario will drag Iraq into a dark future--especially for half of it's population, the women. In the Middle East, the Iraqi woman is famous for being modern, seeking equality. So we also represented those values and we wanted to promote them to the workers in Iraq and encourage them to be outspoken about it and to be courageous and call for a secular government. That was the gist of our message to the Iraqi people.

BW: So how long did you stay in Iraq?

IS: I stayed in Iraq about five and a half months, and then I returned to Toronto to promote what we were doing, to seek the help of the international unions, workers groups, women's organization, individuals who are concerned about the human conditions in Iraq, secularists who care about saving the people of Iraq from falling into the hands of thugs and mass-murderers and creating another Afghanistan. I was doing as much as I can in Toronto and other cities to promote the cause of the unemployed union in Iraq as well as the Federation of Iraqi Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq.

BW: And this work is ongoing in Iraq as well?

IS: This work is ongoing. After long sessions of negotiating with the US authority there, we reached a deadlock with them and we knew that they would never meet their promises.

BW: In terms of unemployment benefits?

IS: Exactly. So we decided to change our tactics. We are dealing with a superpower inside of Iraq, we are only a little organization. So we started to go to neighborhoods and mobilize people on more local issues, demanding better conditions for work in Iraq, and also women's rights.

BW: I've got a news clip on the computer screen here, from December, a UPI clip about how the Baghdad offices of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions was actually raided by US troops in armored cars. Now where does this group fit into the general picture?

IS: Ironically, this organization was officially recognized by the Governing Council in January as official representative of the Iraqi workers. Its leadership includes some former Ba'athists, some pro-Americans, and some legitimate people as well.

BW: If they were recognized by the Governing Council, why were their offices raided?

IS: It was part of the general move by the US to suppress the revival of organized labor in Iraq. It is still a very confusing situation in Iraq. But the US forces also broke into the homes and offices of legitimate unions and organizations, and this has been documented by many watchdogs, such as Occupation Watch, which is an international organization which has some US citizens in it, and it had been recording all the violations. The Union of the Unemployed was also closed by the US troops at a certain point in time.

BW: Your offices were closed?

IS: Yes they were invaded, and messed up...

BW: This was when?

IS: This was, I believe, in June, shortly after we founded the union. Ironically, they brought a person with them that claimed that we were illegally occupying the union building, which was really property of the workers of Iraq. It turned out that this man was a major in the Mukhabarat, the security forces of the old regime. But he wasn't lucky enough, because one of the workers recognized him and immediately told the American soldier, "this guy was torturing us in the old regime and you are now collaborating." It was so ironic, and the soldier suddenly turned around and handcuffed this guy and it was like a small win in the battle of workers, as if we put both parties in a very bad situation.

BW: Both parties meaning...?

IS: Both parties meaning the US forces and the Ba'athists.

BW: Meanwhile the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq continues to have a functioning office in Baghdad...

IS: Yes we have a functioning office

BW: In the former official union building?

IS: No, now we have rented an office across from that building because we were evacuated from it, unfortunately. The Governing Council actually invented this new union and imposed it on the workers of Iraq, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. It is led by Rasem al-Awadi. He was a bureaucrat under the Saddam-era labor bureaucracy. He tried to discourage workers from pursuing a strike at the oil refinery outside Baghdad last year.

Another labor organization to emerge now is the General Federation of Trade Unions, which is really a survival of Saddam-era labor confederation. But workers know what this union is, that it doesn't represent the workers of Iraq. Because the head of the union was part of the apparatus which suppressed the workers during Saddam's regime. We have pictures of the head of this union, Jamil Salman al-Juboory, sitting with Sadaam and having phony festivals and handing out trophies for athletic games and this sort of thing. He was a participant in the most vicious attacks on workers' rights.

BW: And presumably Paul Bremer knows this?

IS: Paul Bremer knows this and I can tell you more Bill--Paul Bremer maintained the labor law that Sadaam had created in 1987. The Ba'athists changed their faces, change their looks, changed their words, and started to come back as peaceful, pious kind of people, or disguised under different names.

BW: And some of them were successful in selling themselves to the US authorities?

IS: They didn't even have to sell themselves, some of them just surrendered and offered their services... But we exposed them to the people. If you go to all the ministries in Iraq you would see people at the top of administrations that are ex-Ba'athists, who were not only Ba'athists ideologically but, in fact, are continuing the practices of Sadaam Hussein. So Paul Brewer knows that, and when we talked to whoever was in charge at the CPA, we said, "You're dealing with Ba'athists now, and there are people out there who are independent, who are sincere, who are honest, who have spent their whole life in that union and you're not allowing them because they don't serve your policies..." And they said that because of lack of expertise they were left with no choice but to chose those people. And this is a violation of all the agreements of the ILO, of all international agreements about worker's rights.

BW: Why is this a violation of the International Labor Organization convention?

IS: Because the ILO convention states that workers should be free of any intervention in their own affairs. They should elect freely their representatives and the state has no business whatsoever in imposing their own alternatives or their own representatives. On January 27, the governing council issued a decree which appointed the leadership of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, and now promotes it as a legal body for representing the workers of Iraq, even internationally. So we made an international effort against this...

BW: You formally complained to the ILO?

IS: Yes. Our federation, which was formed on December 8, 2003, and is called the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, along with the UUI--we were contacted by US Labor Against the War, which had an international campaign to defend the rights of Iraqi workers and to demand the US troops get out of Iraq. So we got together and we sent representatives from our union--the UUI as well as the Confederation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq--and we met with delegations from Switzerland and France and also the Arab Federation of Trade Unions. We met collectively with the ILO and we expressed our concerns about the imposition of a phony union, of a yellow organization, on the people of Iraq, as well as the practices on the ground, the closure of legal gatherings and workers assemblies, the attack on unions that were independently and autonomously elected by workers... We showed them all the facts, we showed them all the details, and we sought their support.

BW: The ILO?

IS: The ILO. We issued an appeal to support workers' rights in Iraq. And we put forward a proposal for a labor code, which would be probably a role model for all working class organizations in the Middle East, I believe. It's very progressive from all points of view, taking care of women's issues, child labor, working hours, holidays, recognizing Mayday, the first of May as international solidarity of working class. All these details have been tackled, but most of all the well being of the worker in Iraq against the attack of capital, the new capital in Iraq.

BW: So some of the figures in the new US-backed labor bureaucracy are implicated in Saddam-era rights violations? Can that be documented?

IS: Yes, if the files are opened. Unfortunately the looting and the destruction of all documents in Iraq under the watch of the US erased a lot of evidence of the massacres that the Ba'athists have committed. But I actually went with a candle down in the basement of that labor building. It's a very modern glass building, similar to the one you see in New York or Toronto. I went to the basement of that building, and workers who were tortured at the hands of the yellow union thugs told me, "We were imprisoned here and we were whipped, because we protested over work hours, or nightshifts, or not having weekends..."

BW: Can you tell us about the Saddam-era labor code, which is still in effect?

IS: In 1987 the Ba'ath passed a law which banned strikes and officially deleted the existence of "workers" in Iraq, redefining them as civil servants or employees of the state. Trade unions were no longer necessary--the socialist state, as they claimed, was taking care of workers' rights so what need was there to have unions or strike? The CPA has deliberately opted not to repeal this law, leaving workers in a legal and industrial-identity limbo. The workers benefit fund for injury and retirement, which came to billions of dollars from the workers' participation over the years, was literally stolen by Saddam. It went right into his pocket. Saddam turned the workers state into a civil-servant state in which the workers compensation plan did not apply anymore. And it sought to break up the unity of the working class, saying that there is no working class anymore in Iraqi society. So the workers came under the complete control of his regime and his companies.

BW: I assume this only applied to workers in the public sector...

IS: Yes, but that was a majority. Every institution you see is owned by the state. This is the state-controlled economy misleadingly called "socialism," which has nothing to do with socialism--which means common property, however you define that, but not just capital in the hands of the state. But by turning the workers into state employees Saddam tried to break up the working class struggle in Iraq, but there was resistance on a daily basis. Every day there was a strike that we never heard of because of lack of media coverage, and because of the suppression and the torture chambers. Saddam is notorious for opposing workers. In 1968 when the Ba'ath party came to power on the tanks, in the military coup, Saddam was one of the thugs who controlled one of the police agencies spying on workers.

BW: He must have been a very young man then...

IS: He was a young man then. He was trained in the '60s at the hands of the CIA, by the way, in Cairo. I don't know if you heard this story. And then the military coup happened in '68 and nationalism came to Iraq, and the start of the butchering and killing of workers' leaders. The working class in Iraq was in it's prime. It lacked a political party that could translate its ambitions into political action, but the working class was very strong and had respect among people of Iraq. When you said, "I'm a unionist" in Iraq you had a great respect from people. Saddam knew that and the Arab nationalist movement knew that and they wanted to kill that movement and to kill the spirit of radicalism in Iraq. So that's what they did. In November 1968, a few months after the military coup, Saddam orchestrated an attack on a general strike by the vegetable oil workers. They killed tens of workers in a massacre which caused great grief among the working class and it was a real tragedy. So Saddam was not new to opposing workers' rights. In fact, when the Ba'ath first took power in 1963, one of the Ba'ath leaders said, "We came on an American tank and we came to oppose the Red expansion."

BW: This was the initial Ba'athist coup in '63?

IS: Yes.

BW: Right, and that didn't last very long?

IS: No, they lasted only a few months before they were toppled by another nationalist counter-coup, but they came to power a second time in 1968 and they lasted for 35 years until the US toppled them. So it's not only Saddam, it's a whole movement that brought him to power, and it's aim was really destroying the working class in Iraq, and any progressive element in that working class would be eliminated. Of course they did as much as they could, but there was a certain point where they couldn't go further--for instance women's status was protected. The women in Iraq are very famous for being progressive, thousands of women got to the street in 1958, can you imagine?

BW: That was in the first revolution, against the king?

IS: In the first revolution. They came to the street under the Women's League, which was a group struggling against the male supremacy and Islamic rules, and they managed to force the system to accept their secular demands of equality. The equality was not complete, but women in Iraq succeeded in forcing modernity and secularism and partial equality between men and women. And now you see the resistance that happened when Resolution 137 was presented by the Governing Council...

BW: The one imposing Shari'a which was recently defeated...

IS: I participated in opposing that. In Iraq itself hundreds of women took to the streets right after that resolution was issued. If you go to Iraq and you see the haphazard killing, the murderous bombing of buses and so on--you would wonder how dare the women come to the streets unveiled, shouting "Down with resolution 137, we want a civil society, we want a secular government" and so on...

BW: How is this 1987 labor law now being used against workers in Iraq?

IS: I have a story by an American journalist, Peter Hogness, published in the magazine Clarion, November of 2003, "Labor Rights in Iraq Union Efforts are Blocked." He says: "Occupation authorities in Iraq have used a law enacted by Saddam Hussein to ban unions in Iraq's public sector. According to an internal memo from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the world's largest trade union organization, a US official with the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA) has indicated that 'they would only countenance organization in the private sector.' The ICFTU's August 26 memo states, 'workers in the public sector would not be allowed to unionize.'" So this would tell you that this law has not been repealed by the CPA, and people are suffering because of that.

BW: I understand the Worker Communist Party of Iraq is allied with the Union of the Unemployed.

IS: Yes, this is the only party that supports our activity and they're really putting all their resources and political support behind it. Actually it's the glue that links these organizations, Women's Freedom and the Union of the Unemployed and the Federation. We're working together to achieve the same political goals that we struggle for.

BW: And what was the status of the Worker Communist Party of Iraq under Saddam? Did it exist?

IS: It existed underground.

BW: So the Workers' Communist Party of Iraq opposed the Saddam regime and now opposes the US occupation and the CPA and the Governing Council as well?

IS: Right.

BW: But there's another Communist party in Iraq which is collaborating?

IS: Yes, that's the Communist Party of Iraq, the CPI.

BW: Which actually has a seat on the Governing Council?

IS: Yes. The irony is, Bill, that this party which is calling itself Communist has accepted religious designations for its Governing Council seats. Because the CPA was keen to have those seats identified as religious--not as class seats or secular divisions, but five for Sunnis, 13 for Shi'ites... So this leader, who is supposed to be a secular communist, agreed to take a seat that was reserved for the Shi'ites. So he was identified, ironically, as a Shiite Communist.

BW: It strikes me as a little counter-intuitive that a Communist, even in name, would be embraced by the US...

IS: The position that they're taking, the alliance with the US, and with the most reactionary forces in Iraq, is a very disgraceful position, which taints the word communist--which really means pushing the cause of workers, pushing the cause of the impoverished, defending humanity against the capitalists. But they are doing exactly the opposite, they're allying with the most reactionary forces that want to degrade the women of Iraq, make them inferior. So the left in Iraq is now represented by the Worker Communist Party. It's a radical left that aims at the bigger picture for Iraq. We aim, in the final analysis, for achieving a workers' state which grants all people the same status, equality among men and women, secularism, a modern state that respects art and literature, and is open to the modern world. This is our aim. But in the meantime we are struggling just towards achieving a secular state where religion would definitely be separated from the constitution. Unfortunately this did not happen. However they may brag about the interim constitution they've signed, it states that Islam is the source of legislation, and Islam is the official religion of the state, and Arabs are the majority in the country. All these create divisions in Iraq, and create a scenario that nobody can predict its effect. Real federalism is different than when they propose. Federalism in Iraq is based on ethnicity and based on religions. Real federalism is never based on religion, or on sects within this religion--in Iraq it is. So we oppose that, we want a secular government in order for the workers to find better circumstances for their struggle to reach their goals of full equality--economically, politically and socially.

BW: How long has the Workers' Communist Party of Iraq been around? When was it founded?

IS: It was founded in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and actually it is a party that is based on criticizing the current left, especially the radical left, even in Europe and in the States, which we think has alienated itself from the working class and turned into bureaus or offices for debate and intellectual talk about Maoism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, all these schools. Partly we based our new thinking upon criticizing what the radical left has done to the workers' movement. We think it shares the blame for the decline of the workers' movement, and we think it has to go back and mingle with that movement. That's why we take on the issues of workers, the important questions that the workers face in their everyday struggle. The questions of equality, the questions of freedom--we cannot negate them or consider them non-worker issues. This is a worker issue. Women in Iraq are facing the veil, are facing threats, they're throwing acid in their faces...

BW: This has happened in Iraq?

IS: This is happening Iraq, in Basra.

BW: Acid thrown in women's faces?

IS: Currently under the British troops in Basra, women are facing morality squads being formed by the Islamic parties that are wandering the streets killing prostitutes. We have issued so many communiquŽs that protest against that. They are threatening women who are not dressed by the Islamic code, not covering their heads or wearing a long dress. The women in Basra are modern women, and throughout the modern history of Iraq they have been very vocal about their equality with the men. Unfortunately under the British troops this situation has totally changed, and now you go to Basra and it looks like Isfahan or to Tabriz in Iran or any of the Afghan cities. That's why we think the workers' movement should interfere, and not negate the fact that repression against workers includes the repression of women. The woman issue in Iraq is on the top list of the Worker Communist Party, and therefore we are expanding in Iraq. The Worker Communist Party has thousands of members now, compared to the beginning when we faced difficulties in promoting our ideas.

BW: So this party has grown dramatically since the fall of Saddam?

IS: Exactly, and it is the only secular force in Iraq that will stand up against political Islam, and say to their faces, "You are terrorist, and you are not welcome in this society; Iraqi society is secular, Iraqi people are civilized, and we will not allow you to suppress women, we will not allow an Islamic government in Iraq."

BW: Just a brief clarifying question. The other communist party, the Communist Party of Iraq, which is now has a Governing Council seat--what was it's status under Saddam?

IS: They were also banned. As you know, Saddam didn't allow any party ...

BW: But they were briefly a part of an alliance with the Ba'ath party in the '70s, right?

IS: That's true. This is the painful point in their history that they want to erase from their books. They went into an alliance with Saddam. They even called Saddam Hussein the great leader of Iraq who will achieve prosperity for the Iraqi people.

BW: And this was what years?

IS: That was in the early '70s, around '74.

BW: That was before Saddam's big coup in '79...

IS: Exactly. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr was the president but Saddam was his deputy, his right hand, he was known for his viciousness and his determination. The Communist Party of Iraq didn't find it awkward or against the will of the workers, who Saddam had butchered harshly in the '60s and early '70s, to come into alliance with this fascist. The Ba'ath regime was fascist from the start. They turned themselves into collaborators with the most vicious enemy of the working class, which is the Ba'ath party.

BW: But that alliance didn't last long, it only lasted a few years...

IS: No it didn't last long. The alliance was broken by the orders of Saddam Hussein. Actually it was a trap for the Communists by the Ba'athists. They wanted to drag them so close that they can hold them from their necks, and that's what had happened. They accused them of trying to recruit people from within the Iraqi army, which was an accusation leading to death. In 1978 they were all given orders to leave Iraq or face imprisonment or execution, so they decided to leave Iraq in an exodus to the West and to nearby Arab countries. Throughout the years they haven't changed their policy and ideology, they're still the most opportunistic party. If they see the Islamists in power, they would ally with the Islamists; if they see the Ba'athists then they would ally with them. And if they see the working class rising, they would change their policies. They are just superficial shells that have no content, they are merely a camouflage.

BW: Do you view political Islam, as you put it, in the same light, or do you think that they are more than an empty shell?

IS: No. The Islamic movement in Iraq had a popularity, mind you, I don't want to underestimate the Islamists in Iraq--but that was years ago. Today Islamists cannot sustain their existence without terrorism. This is a point that everyone should know. Without terrorism Islam cannot prevail. Without saying, "I'm going to chop your head off if you don't pray five times a day," then it's not going to survive. Women want to look modern, youth want to dance and drink beer and listen to music, to western music particularly, and want to dress in jeans, they want to have their hair styled, and this is not Islamic. Women will not agree to be one of four wives, and this is not Islamic. Monogamy is not Islamic, polygamy is Islamic. All these things are long dead in Iraq. Islam can only survive if they have weapons, a machete or a knife--and that's what's happening.

Another factor is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. If that is not solved in a just way, by creating a state for the Palestinians, an equal state, the Islamists will have a cause to butcher more people. The Israeli fascists are killing innocent Palestinians and the Islamic fascists are killing more Palestinians and Israeli citizens, and this vicious circle only strengthens political Islam. But the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the downfall now, millions of people are protesting. Millions of people have shown their anguish to the Islamic regime. And political Islam in Iraq is really dependent on these two factors.

BW: Which two factors?

IS: The Islamic Republic of Iran from one side, and the conflict which is increasingly vicious and violent between Israeli and Palestinians.. But I truly think that political Islam is on the downfall, is on the demise.

BW: Globally?

IS: Globally, yes. But that doesn't mean it's automatic, like you just sit back and wait for more Madrids and wait for more Twin Towers and wait for more mass murdering in Baghdad. This is not the case. But the real root is this problem which modern political Islam is really nurturing itself on. You listen to their slogans--jihad, Crusaders, the atheist Americans--this is all coming from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, because the Americans are helping the Israelis in committing those massacres.

BW: Of course.

IS: So once you put an end to this tragedy then you would accelerate the downfall of this tremendous criminal movement in the world. Accordingly, the terrorism that has been practiced by the US government against innocent people, the destruction and the bombardment, should find itself questionable by the people of the United States, and people would say, "OK, you wanted to fight terrorism, now what? Now why are you pursuing this vicious policy?"

So I'm not trying to contradict myself--I believe in the downfall, but there are responsibilities of the progressive movement to clarify and to press these issues. Because, I tell you, if we don't rise up, if we don't oppose them, if we don't point the finger and educate the people about them, if we're not vocal about saying political Islam is criminal because they are killing innocent workers in the buses--then the people would still be fearful of them.

I believe in the people as an alternative. I believe that this third power, which is huge, by the millions, could alter this scenario of the war of terrorisms, or of terrorists--rather than the "war on terrorism." This war of terrorists should end by the people. Unless we realize this fact--that these two are the enemies of people--then we will not be able to fight this epidemic of terrorism in the whole world.

BW: Well you said earlier, for instance, that the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict does not touch people's lives in Iraq. But demonstrably it has--enough blood has been shed over it, we just saw the horrific massacre at the pilgrimage in Karbala this month...

IS: That's correct. And, again, I accuse political Islam of committing it. As long as they are not reaching the US forces, or they can inflict only a few casualties, they are trying to create a scenario in Iraq that will be a political failure to the US. That scenario is a civil war based on religion.

BW: Well, I think that's one part of it--to embarrass the US and turn Iraq into a debacle for US imperialism. I think another part of it is that the Sunni extremists--al-Qaeda or what have you--really do hate the Shi'ites, and they really do want to see a civil war.

IS: That's true. Well, I don't really think that those guys love anyone to start with. They killed people who even are not Muslims and now they're turning on Muslims from another sect. I don't believe they have any kind of preference to who they kill, their strategy is to create horror and fear. This is a bankruptcy to me, when you do this--what happened in Madrid, or in Karbala, or here in New York--you're a bankrupt political force. I believe that they hate everyone and they want to prevail with terror, and the cause of fighting the infidels is just a camouflage.

BW: So you think that they're more nihilists than even religious believers?

IS: I think they are Islamists--they have their reference to the Koran, some of them have spent years and years studying it, and they know it. And to me they are true Muslims, by the way--to the dislike of my Muslim friends who say, "No, true Islam is not like that." I say, "Look at yourself--you're modern, how come you're Muslim? If you're really Muslim, you should follow this book..." And those Islamists are following it.

BW: Well, as with the Bible, everything in the Koran is open to interpretation. The Christian religion has given us Mother Theresa and it's given us Torquemada, just like communism has given us Rosa Luxembourg and it's given us Pol Pot.

IS: Yeah, I appreciate that kind of viewpoint, but on the other hand communism never said kill for jihad, or invade other nations for jihad.

BW: No, but it has said invade other nations for the revolution and so on. Stalin committed horrible crimes.

IS: Yeah, but it also said the means of production should be turned over to the people, which didn't happen under Pol Pot, and not even in China or Russia. So we could debate about that on some other occasion. But what I mean to say is that if you have a book that says you can marry four wives, or you can beat up your wife because she didn't obey you, then this is something direct, this cannot be interpreted. I talked to a sheikh one day and I said, "What do you say about this verse?" And he laughed and he said, "No, no, this verse means that you can beat your wife, but only with a piece of cloth." I said, really? And I asked him, "But can she beat you with the same cloth?" And of course he said, "She would never beat me." [Laughter.]

Anyway, we're just trying to be funny about this but I think this is a serious issue. I think this religion has to disappear from people's lives, to tell you the truth. Of course faith and religion should be a personal matter. You can believe and you can enjoy this feeling of belonging to something, but imposing it on millions of people, and using weapons and all means of coercion--this should stop. We are living in a society that went way past this stage in Iraq and now we're seeing millions of people suffering and unfortunately the US is not doing anything against it. Actually, the reverse is happening. They are collaborating with those reactionaries, they want to turn Iraq into an Islamic country. This is preparing the ground for Iraq to sink into a bloodbath. We should be vocal about these two vicious poles of terrorism.

BW: You say the people can be a third force between these two poles of terrorism. How? Where is the power of the people, unarmed, just through their own civil organization, against heavily armed terrorist outfits which are blowing up buses and committing massacres, and bombing civilians? Where is that power?

IS: Well the power is there, and the power has expressed itself in so many occasions. I believe I remember the people of New York getting out to the streets before the war and saying "No, not in our names."

BW: Certainly, half a million of us on February 15 of last year.

IS: Yes, half a million said "Not in our names."

BW: And yet there was a war, wasn't there?

IS: There was a war, I'm not denying that. But we still have a future ahead of us. And in order to have a plan of changing the world into a better one, we have to know what to do, we have to know who to ally with, and what agenda to have, and we have to be clear about who the elements we march in the streets with are. We have to be critical and we have to open our eyes and to be progressive. Let's examine the movements that we are dealing with--what's their agenda regarding women? What do they aspire for workers in Iraq, what do they aspire for the millions? If we do not find a political agenda which is progressive, we can not proceed, we will definitely weaken our movement. I accuse the elements which allowed the non-progressive forces to infiltrate the anti-war movement, doing that on purpose in order to weaken that movement and allow the right wing of George W Bush to say that these not peaceful demonstrations, these are Islamic demonstrations.

BW: Intentionally?

IS: Intentionally, of course.

BW: Why? With what aim?

IS: Because they want to maintain their hegemony, to alienate real progressives. They use slogans which confuse and alienate people.

BW: Such as what?

IS: "Islam is the answer," for instance. In the anti-war movement you hear "Islam is the answer."

BW: Perhaps in Canada. Not so much here. We have other problems with the anti-war organizations here, but that's really not one of them.

IS: Well, that's what's happening in Canada, I tell you. And if this is happening in Canada then it's happening in Europe and elsewhere.

BW: So was there a march in Toronto on March 20?

IS: There was a march in Toronto, yes, and it was a fairly big march. And even bigger last year on February 15. But we were very keen on saying, "Your position is wrong unless you clear this movement of these elements that we see as no less criminal because they don't have any regard or any consideration to human life..."

BW: Alright now who are you referring to who? You're referring to political Islam, as you call it?

IS: Yes, along with other factions of the radical left which find no shame in supporting them against the will of Iraqi people. I read the analyses about, for instance, Madrid, and they never call them atrocities or crimes--"these actions" they say. And these are newspapers of the so-called ultra-left or radical left--they say "these actions made Aznar pull away from the Bush alliance." It is as if they're praising these actions, because they are leading to positive consequences, the political aims that they aspire to, the breakup of an alliance which is not going to really affect Mr. Bush much... But killing 200 people is no business of their concern. They're really alienated, again as I say, from the people. So unless we find a common ground that is progressive and has a path of humanity, of respecting human beings, of denying any actions that are terrorist against the people--coming from blue-eyed people, black-eyed people, or whatever--we won't be able to waken this sleeping giant, as I call it, the people's giant, which is by the millions. And believe me, if they took to the street in 20 millions in New York and other cities, the US would pull out of Iraq...

BW: But there were millions marching around the world on February 15.

IS: True. And I believe those millions will increase. But what I'm saying is we have to realize ourselves, and be unified around a clearer goal. We have to take those issues of humanity and agree on them and take the movement forward. Otherwise there will be people who would see elements against humanity and they would refrain from coming out and that will break the back of these movements.

BW: OK, Isam Shukri, thank you so much for joining us. Is there a web site where people can find out more about the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq?

IS: Yes definitely, our web site address is Union of the Unemployed in Iraq , and there people can roam around and see the history of our struggles for the welfare of Iraqi people and to resist the occupation and to establish a secular government.

Transcription: Wynde Priddy

Edited and updated by Bill Weinberg based on telephone interviews with Issam Shukri

Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, May 1, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Reprinting permissible with attribution.