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Sami Ramadani on the struggle against occupation
Behind the rising tide of resistance in Iraq

January 28, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

SAMI RAMADANI lived in exile from his native Iraq for many years as a political refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime. But he stood strongly with the international antiwar movement in opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He is a columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper and a senior lecturer in sociology at the London Metropolitan University.

Ramadani was interviewed by ERIC RUDER about what's at stake in the Iraqi elections--and what the future holds for Iraq's resistance to U.S. occupation.

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WILL THE January 30 elections accomplish what the U.S. wants them to accomplish?

THE POPULAR hostility to the invasion and occupation has not given the U.S. administration time to breath in Iraq. They have thus stumbled from one reactive "initiative" to the next. This hostility has thwarted most of the pre-war plans. And here, I disagree with those who think that the U.S. and Britain had no plans for Iraq after the invasion.

After more than a year of opposing calls for early elections in Iraq, the U.S. administration relented, jumped on the bandwagon and tried its best to draw capital out of the exercise. Domestically, it helped the Bush re-election campaign. Internationally, the neo-cons appeared to be faithful to their agenda of spreading "democracy."

Much more importantly, they quickly saw an enormous value in starting an election process that could sow discord within Iraq and, for the first time, create an important division of opinion among the anti-occupation organizations and among the mass of the people outside Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, Paul Bremer also made sure to enact enough laws, though internationally illegal, to dictate the process of the election and to ensure the reelection of a reincarnation of the present interim government.

WHAT'S THE level of opposition to the elections among Iraqis? For example, is the media accurate in generally saying that the Shiite Muslim majority supports the elections and Sunni Muslims don't?

I THINK most people in Iraq are opposed to holding elections under the control of and during the brutal occupation. The savage attacks on Falluja, Najaf and Sadr City and the torture of prisoners have sharpened opposition to the occupation-organized elections. Opposition also hardened in the light of the sharply deteriorating quality of life on all fronts.

This was a strong shift from the very popular calls for immediate elections after the invasion in April 2003.

These calls were rejected by the occupation authorities, using the pretext of the necessity for holding a new census and the "inadequacy" of identifying the electorate by using the ration cards held by all Iraqi families. The full records of these ration cards--which were distributed by the Saddam regime during the murderous 13 years of U.S.-led sanctions--were held by the United Nations to monitor the oil-for-food program designed to prevent sanctions causing widespread starvation in Iraq.

The rising tide of the resistance, however, forced a change of direction, and the swift legitimization of the occupation became an absolute necessity.

[Iraq's foremost Shiite cleric] Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had earlier strengthened his standing by calling for swift constitutional assembly elections and by denouncing Bremer's interim constitution under which the two forthcoming elections would be run. His change of stance and support for Bremer's election scheme has certainly contributed to the division of opinion among the people.

However, it is wrong to see the division in sectarian terms. The popular Sadr movement [led by militant cleric Moktada al-Sadr] and secular anti-occupation forces in Sadr City in Baghdad and the south have ensured that there is no great enthusiasm for this undemocratic exercise.

Opposition to the election, outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, is based on three essentials: there can be no fair and free elections under a brutal occupation; the election process is deeply flawed and designed to perpetuate the occupation and sow sectarian and ethnic divisions; and the process will disenfranchise millions of Iraqis.

THE U.S. government dismisses the Iraqi resistance to occupation as a hodgepodge of "terrorists" or remnants of the old regime. Can you talk about the character of the resistance?

THE DEFINITIVE article "the" tends to portray the resistance as a centralized, unified movement, while in reality, it is extremely diverse and localized networks of mostly young anti-occupation activists.

In the impoverished working-class districts of Baghdad, such as Sadr City, and in Najaf, Basra and other southern cities, the Sadr movement is by far the biggest and most organized of the resistance forces. However, even this movement is based on neighborhood networks that very generally support Sadr's anti-occupation acts.

In the rest of Baghdad as well as cities and villages to the north, there is no one dominant organization. There are Islamist (mostly Arab, but some Kurdish, too), Arab nationalist and secular forces. The secular trends are strong, but lack strong pan-Iraqi organizations. They range from left-wing trends to former Baathists who denounced Saddam for "surrendering" Iraq to the U.S.-led forces.

In the age of instant publicity, those organizations that have access to the Internet and manage to make videos of their activities have generally captured the headlines. These have been mostly Islamist organizations, which have given an exaggerated impression of the extent of their strength within the broad resistance movement.

The biggest headlines have been reserved for the terrorist and murderous acts of the Zarqawi-type organizations. Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, who has recently combined forces with Osama bin Laden, is not an Iraqi, and to judge from their accents, neither are most of the kidnappers who produce the infamous videos showing the beheading of captives.

Anti-occupation Iraqis invariably accuse the occupation forces (and the 50,000 foreign mercenaries they have contracted to operate in Iraq) of using these "fundamentalist" gangs and some of the Saddamist thugs to create confusion; besmirch the reputation of the resistance; target Shia and Sunni religious figures and shrines; and kill humanitarian organization personnel and journalists mostly sympathetic to the cause of the Iraqi people.

In this respect, it is very important to closely examine the record and activities of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad operating from Saddam's massive Republican Palace.

It has come as a surprise to me that some left and liberal commentators have been very quick to accuse the Iraqi resistance of "hedonism" and "targeting" civilians. Not only have they done this without producing concrete evidence, but they also have tended to accuse the resistance in general.

My own assessment is that their time would be much more fruitfully spent digging into Negroponte's record of coordinating the activities of terror organizations that targeted trade unionists and others in Central America in the 1980s.

I think that these commentators are causing enormous damage to the right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation. I am not pretending that Iraqi resistance elements are some kind of special angels, but they are not peculiar monsters, either.

Nor are they the first resistance movement that targeted collaborators and persons working with occupation forces. We only have to look at the record of the resistance forces in France and elsewhere in Europe in the fight against Nazi occupation forces to see how bitter and bloody these conflicts can become.

To those who say that the U.S.-led forces should not be compared to the Nazi forces in Europe, I say this might be strictly true, but try telling it to the people of the neighborhoods of Falluja, Najaf and Sadr City--at the receiving end of bombardment by the most lethal death-and-destruction machine in human history. Try telling it to the relatives, loved ones and dearest friends of the over 100,000 Iraqis killed by the occupation forces.

Those who only see the Iraqi resistance through the prism of the spectacular terrorist operations are perhaps not aware that of the average of 3,000 military operations per month against the occupation forces, the terrorist operations that target civilians and grab the daily headlines are not much more than 30 per month.

THE MEDIA in the U.S. are especially focused currently on the split between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. How has this division affected the resistance?

I THINK that this split is highly exaggerated and is often based on lack of knowledge and understanding of Iraqi society and history. There are Shia living throughout Iraq, including Kurdistan, and similarly, there are Sunnis and Christians who have peacefully coexisted for many centuries.

There is no history of communal strife or civil war in Iraq, and the degree of socio-economic integration and unity of purpose among the Iraqi people is often underestimated. There is also a powerful secular tradition in Iraq that transcends all religions and sects.

U.S. and British mainstream commentators were confidently predicting that large-scale attacks by Shia against Sunnis would be unavoidable after the downfall of Saddam's regime. To their embarrassment and dismay, millions of Iraqis--of all sects and none--marched in the streets, denouncing the occupation and chanting "La Shia, La Sunna, hatha al-balad menbi'a" ("No Shia or Sunni, this country we shall not sell").

It was also noticeable that people from most parts of Iraq were collecting aid for the peoples of Najaf, Falluja and Sadr City while the U.S. and British media were busy peddling sectarian myths.

On the historical tribal roots, it has also to be stressed that nearly all Iraqi tribes have Sunni and Shia "branches" within them. These traditional tribal links, though much weaker now than tens of decades ago, have also militated against any sectarian conflicts.

While recognizing that if something didn't happen in the past doesn't mean it will not happen in the future, it is important to also recognize that sectarian centrifugal forces--whether in the socio-economic or ideological fields--are particularly weak within Iraq.

One of the main reasons for this is that "Iraqi" identity has deep roots that go much further back than the foundation of the modern Iraqi state. In modern Iraq, working-class struggles and national anti-colonial and anti-imperialist uprisings have often engulfed the whole of Iraq, cementing this identity.

This integration also applies to ties between Arabs and Kurds. There are, for example, more Kurds in Baghdad than any city in the whole of Kurdistan.

However, Saddam's mass murders and chauvinist policies and the manipulation of these policies by the U.S. and Britain since 1991 have created greater political separation between Kurdish and non-Kurdish political forces in Iraq. The decline of the Iraqi Communist Party--which used to be in the late 1950s and 1960s the most powerful mass-based political force throughout Iraq--has also weakened the strong political unity that existed between Arabs and Kurds.

However, it is my assessment that this estrangement is of a temporary nature and that the underlying commonality of interests among the nationalities in Iraq and the wider Middle East will reassert themselves.

What will also reassert itself is the irreconcilable contradiction between the interests of U.S. imperialist policies and those of the Kurdish people in Iraq, Turkey and Iran. In 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger masterminded and mediated an agreement between Saddam and the Shah of Iran that was specifically directed at crushing the Kurdish nationalist movement, then led by Mustafa Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Kissinger's 1975 maneuver will sooner or later also inform U.S. policies towards the Kurdish people in a contemporary context. The U.S. administration, for example, is already keen on getting the agreement of the Iraqi Kurdish groups to cooperate with the Turkish government to crush the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkish Kurdistan.

SOME VOICES in the antiwar movement propose that we withhold support for the resistance in Iraq because we disagree with their politics. What do you think?

THERE HAS always been disagreement with the programs, politics and tactics of resistance movements. This was true of Albania, France, Algeria, Kenya, Cyprus, Vietnam and many others. This is also true of Palestine and Iraq today.

My view is that one has to start from the principled position of opposing occupation and conquest, whether of the colonial or imperialist variety--and of supporting the struggle of the peoples for liberation. As a socialist, I would naturally be delighted if these struggles are led by socialist movements. But that is for the people in struggle to decide.

Nor should the absence of such strong socialist movements be used as an argument to absolve socialists of their internationalist duty and fundamental task of backing the struggle against imperialist policies of hegemony and wars of aggression.

Criticism of and dialogue with all movements in struggle is obviously essential. But to withhold support from the people's resistance to occupation because one disagrees with some of its sections or even of its leadership would seriously damage the worldwide struggle against imperialist domination.

Also, one has to be also vigilant and take a dose of anti-imperialist immunity, because the mainstream media's constant attempts to portray the resistance movements as a bunch of murderers is bound to affect us.

This is particularly so if we do not have easy access to alternative sources of news and analysis. I find my knowledge of other countries seriously colored by the mainstream media until I have access to those country's authentic voices. Even on Iraq, with a fast-developing situation, I find that even a few day's detachment from sources emanating from Iraq colors my view of the situation if I only have access to the mainstream media.

The repetition of mantras and the drip-drip effect of intensive and prolonged media coverage can have serious influence on our view of the world. The Sunni-Shia "conflict" is one such manta that has become so dominant that it has crept into antiwar and socialist analyses of Iraq.

The class basis of some of these issues is completely ignored, with no understanding that the top merchants of Najaf and Karbala and Baghdad take a very different view of the conflict in Iraq than the workers, students and unemployed of those cities--regardless of their sect. There is, for example, a failure to see the class distinction between those supporting the Shia cleric Moktada al-Sadr and those backing other Shia clerics. As the conflict escalates, this distinction will prove very important and undermine any notion of a deep Sunni-Shia divide.

A false and damaging distinction is sometimes made between "purely" working-class activity--trade unions, for example--in an occupied country like Iraq and the general struggle to end imperialist occupation and domination. The struggle of the peoples against occupation and for liberation is part and parcel of the struggle of the working people in Iraq, the U.S., Europe and the whole world for a better future--a future in which wars of aggression, exploitation of human labor for the benefit of the few and the destruction of the earth's environment are eliminated.

Without active international solidarity, particularly of the American people, the Iraqi and other peoples will not be able to achieve liberation from occupation and war. Nor will that brighter future be possible.

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