Tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against the U.S. occupation, April 9, in Baghdad. Some estimated the numbers as high as 300,000. The rally reflected the virtually unanimous anger in Iraq over the U.S. military presence and the devastation it has caused. At the same time, it indicated the complexities facing Iraq’s democratic and progressive forces who are seeking to build a united, secular, democratic state.
The peaceful protest, held on the second anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, was initiated by backers of Islamic fundamentalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Observers saw it as evidence that Sadr is engaging in the political process instead of armed actions. It was also widely seen as a flexing of political muscle aimed at increasing Sadr’s clout in the transitional government now in formation.
Last month, an armed group associated with Sadr attacked students picnicking in a park in Basra. Using truncheons and rubber cables, the attackers beat female students not wearing headscarves, shaved off one woman’s hair, and smashed cell phones, cameras and stereo players. One student was shot and later died.
The incident sparked mass protests, including a strike by university students, who said they would not stand for “the new tyranny” of “political Islam.” Student groups negotiated with the provincial governor and won the removal of Islamic “security and protection” committees from the campus. It was the first mass action of this type since the U.S. invasion, and has helped galvanize student activism in Iraq, said Iraqi Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali. “It was a test of strength, part of the fight for democratic rights.” He called it an indication of the growth of mass organizations in the country.
This month, a new ICP office in Baghdad’s impoverished Sadr City neighborhood was attacked and burned in the middle of the night. Many believed that Sadr supporters were behind the attack, as retaliation for the party’s active role in the Basra student protests. The attack drew wide condemnation in Sadr City and beyond. Soon after, Sadr’s group asked for a meeting with the ICP leadership. A high-level delegation met with ICP leaders and delivered a personal letter from Sadr, distancing himself from the attack and saying he wished to cooperate with the Communist Party.
Sadr’s movement is not homogeneous, and he is not able to fully control it, the ICP’s Ali noted. He called Sadr’s overture to the ICP a “very significant” development, showing that the cleric is open to pressure.
The Iraqi Communist Party works to maintain “normal relations” with Sadr and other Islamist groups, Ali told the World. “At the same time, we are determined to stand up for democratic rights, for women, for students, and others,” he said.
“The main contradiction we face is with the U.S. occupation,” Ali said. “We are very careful not to raise contradictions with other Iraqi groups.” But, he emphasized, defense of democratic rights is “essential to our big battle to end the occupation and move forward to an independent, sovereign Iraq.”
“The U.S. will try to maintain its influential position in Iraqi politics without being seen to openly do so,” Ali commented. How Iraq’s new government deals with the occupation will depend on the balance of social forces, he noted. He expressed hope that independent voices will make themselves heard calling for a clear timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, with UN participation.
The government will be dominated by three political blocks, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the Kurdish block, and previous prime minister Iyad Allawi’s group. Its key tasks include drafting and ratification of a constitution, and organizing national elections at the end of the year.
The delay in forming the government, due to extended jockeying for power, aroused considerable public anger and has undermined the credibility of these groups, especially the Shiite alliance.
Critical problems that Iraqis expect the government to deal with include security, public services, employment, and accountability of public officials.
Living conditions are “really bad — actually they have worsened” under the occupation, Ali said. He cited a recent UN report that malnutrition in children under 5 has nearly doubled. More than one-quarter of Iraqi children don’t have enough to eat. Infant mortality has also risen.
There is great concern that areas that were bombarded by the U.S. are heavily contaminated by depleted uranium, and Iraqi groups are demanding an independent UN investigation.
Poverty and joblessness are major problems, with unemployment around the country ranging from 25 to 50 percent. Needed services and supplies, such as medicines, don’t reach the people because of “unprecedented corruption within the government,” Ali said. “It is one of the hot issues.”
Thabit Abdullah, an Iraqi exile who is professor of history at York University in Canada, said addressing the “overwhelming bread and butter issues” is a priority to advance Iraq’s progressive and working class movement.
He cautioned that the Iraqi left is working under extremely difficult conditions and is forced to make difficult decisions and concessions. “In no way does that mean the American left should moderate its opposition to Bush and neo-imperialism. But don’t blame us [the Iraqi left],” he said. “I believe the Iraqi democratic movement is coming back, but you have to have patience.”