THE CIVIL OPPOSITION IN IRAQ
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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'
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
BW: And some of them were successful in selling themselves to the US
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
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
Transcription: Wynde Priddy
Edited and updated by Bill Weinberg based on telephone interviews with
Special to WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, May 1, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution