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The Iraqi Communist Party and the U.S. occupation
Confrontation or collaboration?

April 15, 2005 | Page 8

Ilario Salucci, A People's History of Iraq: The Iraqi Communist Party, Workers' Movements, and the Left 1924-2004. Haymarket Books, 2005, 190 pages, $12.

THE U.S. government has been a notorious enemy of Communist Parties around the world. Washington has spent millions, sponsored coups and organized covert wars, all to keep CPs and their affiliated unions and organizations out of governments and away from power in Latin America and elsewhere.

But in U.S.-occupied Iraq, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was part of the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by Washington's overseer Paul Bremer. And the council--as well as U.S. occupation authorities--gave the nod to the ICP-affiliated Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) as the sole legal representative of Iraqi workers.

This contradiction is something the antiwar movement has had to grapple with in building opposition to Washington's war on the Iraqi people. Last October, for example, IFTU international representative Abdullah Muhsin (who has lived outside of Iraq for 20 years) appeared before a conference of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party--and gave a passionate speech in support of British occupation troops remaining in Iraq. This year, U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW) plans to tour unionists from three Iraqi labor federations, including the IFTU.

Why did the U.S. government tolerate ICP participation in the governing council? Why did the ICP participate? Is the IFTU the sole legitimate representative of Iraqi workers? ERIC RUDER reviews a new book that tells the history of the ICP--and examines the controversy over the role played by the ICP and IFTU today.

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HISTORICALLY, IRAQ'S Communist Party has been one of the largest and most important forces on the country's secular left. Over the years, it has sometimes stood alone as an organization prepared to take up the demands of Iraq's working class and peasantry.

Yet it also has a record of betraying Iraqi workers at crucial points--a consequence of its commitment to the Stalinism that came to dominate Communist Parties throughout the world following the defeat of the Russian Revolution and the rise to power of a new bureaucratic ruling class in the ex-USSR.

Ilario Salucci's book--newly published in English by Haymarket Books as A People's History of Iraq--is filled with examples of the party's twists and turns.

Like other CPs around the world, the ICP took its political line from Moscow and subordinated its agenda to the foreign policy needs of the former USSR. Thus, when Nazi Germany's invasion of the USSR in 1941 put an abrupt end to the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, Moscow formed a military alliance with the U.S., Britain and France against Germany and Italy--and ordered CPs to praise these new allies as leaders in the "struggle against fascism."

In Iraq, this political line put the ICP in the absurd position of supporting the British, Iraq's former colonial overlords--whose military had been forced out some 10 years earlier, but who continued to dominate Iraq's economy through their close relationship with the Hashemite monarchy that ran the country with an iron fist.

In 1947, when the USSR supported the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel, the ICP again adopted this line as its own--in opposition to the feelings of most Iraqis.

In 1958, mass demonstrations in many Iraqi cities paved the way for the overthrow of the monarchy by a group of military officers, who appointed Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Qasim as prime minister.

During the next year, the ICP reached the height of its powers. It won mass support among ordinary Iraqis by pushing for agrarian reform to benefit peasants against the large landowners and economic development that would benefit the working class.

But its acceptance of the Stalinist redefinition of socialism to mean not workers' power but national economic development--and its commitment to a "stagist" view that any revolution in Iraq would be limited to ushering in a period of capitalist development--meant that the ICP was continually thrown into alliances with forces whose interests were often opposed to those of workers.

Thus, when the ICP pushed Qasim to recognize its broad popularity by bringing ICP representatives into the government, Qasim instead turned on his ICP supporters. This provoked a debate within the party about whether the time had come--given the widespread struggles of workers and peasants and the party's own popularity--to organize for a seizure of power.

Ultimately, the ICP decided against this course--a victim of its own theoretical framework, which ruled out the possibility of accomplishing anything more than a revolution to bring about the full development of capitalism. Since the Qasim government was already carrying out this objective, the ICP could come to no other conclusion than to continue supporting it.

Not only did this decision sap the fighting spirit of the ICP's supporters among Iraqi workers and peasants, leading to a sharp decline in party membership, but it also handed the momentum to Qasim--who responded by outlawing the ICP, arresting its leaders and reversing agrarian reform.

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AFTER THE Baath Party cemented its hold on power in Iraq with a 1968 coup, the ICP was again drawn into lending support to a nationalist government over the following few years--with catastrophic consequences for the left, the Iraqi labor movement and the struggle of Kurds in the North against their national oppression.

In the early 1970s, the Baath regime nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company, granted workers the right to organize (though severely limiting the right to strike or join anything but state-sanctioned unions) and introduced land reform even more sweeping than the policy supported by the ICP.

According to Salucci, this began "a new period...during which the ICP depicted Saddam Hussein as the Iraqi Fidel Castro...as the Baath Party's man of the Left closest to the ICP's own political line. In February 1974, the ICP closed all its independent (necessarily illegal) workplace organizations. It supported the actions of the Baathists, including the bloody war perpetrated against the Kurdish people in 1974-75."

Then, Hussein began his attack on his Communist allies. By 1976, Salucci writes, "the Baathists had fully exploited the acquiescence of the Communists in order to gain almost total control of the trade unions, the peasant unions, and other mass organizations." Even so, between 1972 and 1976, the ICP and IFTU worked tirelessly--within Iraq and internationally--to persuade anyone who would listen that Hussein's regime had "reformed" itself and was now pursuing "progressive and patriotic" measures.

After this point, the ICP was reduced to a bit player in Iraq's political system--and it failed to take up significant opportunities to rebuild its influence.

After the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, massive uprisings against Hussein's regime took control of huge areas in both the northern Kurdish region and the Shiite-dominated South. Dozens of workplace and neighborhood councils sprang up, especially in the north, and a large section of Iraq's military broke ranks to join the struggle. Yet neither the ICP nor any other opposition organization in Baghdad supported the rebellion.

With the blessings of the U.S.--which preferred Saddam's authoritarianism to a government that gave expression to Iraqi workers and oppressed minorities--the central government regained the initiative, launched a counteroffensive and crushed the uprising.

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THIS HISTORY is crucial background for understanding the role of the ICP today--in particular, the party's pattern of issuing radical-sounding statements that are belied by its alliances and actions.

"We are against occupation now and were against the war in the past," Hamid Majid Moussa, a leader of the present-day ICP, told the Egyptian Al-Ahram Weekly in mid-March. But this seemingly uncompromising statement masks the ICP's collaboration with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council two summers ago, and its participation in the puppet regime led by Iyad Allawi leading up to the January election.

At every turn, the IFTU has followed the ICP's lead--and collaborated with the U.S. effort to legitimize its handpicked political leaders and to demonize those Iraqis who decided to actively oppose the U.S./British occupation. "On the other hand," writes Iraqi exile and antiwar activist Sami Ramadani, "the IFTU and the ICP are yet to launch a campaign against the massacres committed by the occupation forces."

As Hani Lazim, a member of Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation, summarized: "If you are part of a government that allows the U.S. to bomb towns like Falluja and the al-Sadr area of Baghdad, don't tell me you oppose the occupation."

Ramadani has urged unions in the West to reject collaboration with the IFTU. "It's time to call a spade a spade," he wrote in an open letter to a British unionist. "The leaders of the IFTU and the ICP are part of a left-wing sounding, trade-union 'friendly' campaign to oppose the immediate withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq."

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