March 20, 2017 marked the 14th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. military forces on the order of President George W. Bush. Today, the country still struggles to achieve a peaceful, united, and democratic future. Terrorism, sectarian strife, proxy wars, and corruption all threaten its stability. The following article is an interview with Salam Ali, a member of the Central Committee of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), who discusses these topics and more. It is an edited version of a conversation first published in Nameh Mardom, the newspaper of the Tudeh Party of Iran.
Nameh Mardom (NM): Perhaps we could start with a question about the developments in the war to defeat ISIS and expel them from Iraq. News reports say Iraqi forces have recaptured the Mosul airport and areas in the west of the city. Could you please tell us about the significance of these developments for the future of Iraq’s security in relation to the presence of foreign military forces, specifically those of the U.S.?
Salam Ali: The battle for the liberation of Mosul from Daesh (the so-called ISIS) is continuing after successfully recapture of the eastern side of the city. The Iraqi armed forces have already seized Mosul airport, a big military camp, and three districts. The battle’s outcome is of enormous political significance for Iraq, as it will contribute to shaping the political landscape post-Daesh. The country will be facing several challenges after the military defeat of Daesh. These include the ability of the security forces to curtail the operations of terrorist sleeper cells, the fate of para-military formations, the future of “disputed territories” between the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), and plans that have been put forward with regard to Nineveh province to split it up into several provinces. In addition, there is the need for concrete measures to achieve societal and national reconciliation and build civil peace, as well as confronting schemes aimed at dividing up Iraq.
The military successes that have been achieved so far are important steps along the path of liberating all Iraqi towns and regions from the scourge of terrorism, achieving security and stability, and ensuring the return of more than three million displaced people and refugees to their towns and homes.
A major factor behind the successes achieved in the battlefield has been the good level of cooperation between the Iraqi Army, the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF [state-sponsored militia groups], and the Peshmerga [the military forces of the KRG). Iraq has received international support for the fight against Daesh in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions. In the military field, this support has focused mainly on providing training and advice to the Iraqi armed forces. The Iraqi government has rejected the deployment of foreign, including U.S., combat troops, however, and has reaffirmed its opposition to the presence of foreign bases.
NM: There are reports that the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite militias are providing important backups for the war effort against ISIS. Could you please explain their role and whether there are any differences of focus between different contingents of the forces operating against ISIS?
Ali: The military plan for the liberation of Mosul has so far ensured a well-coordinated effort between the Iraqi armed forces, the Peshmerga, and the PMF. The army and federal police have been allocated the task of liberating the city of Mosul itself, with backup provided by the Peshmerga to the east and by the PMF to the west. The latter is engaging Daesh in the area around the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and is cutting off its routes to the Syrian borders. The military cooperation between the federal government and the KRG, however, is not matched by a similar level of political and economic cooperation. This is one aspect of the overall political crisis in Iraq, which would have to be resolved in a peaceful manner between the two sides through dialogue based on the constitution.
It is important to point out that the PMF is not just made up of “Shiite militias” but also includes volunteers who joined these units during a critical moment in mid-2014 in order to combat Daesh, and they gave sacrifices and martyrs in subsequent battles. It is seen as a temporary institution, under the authority of the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces (the prime minister), and its job would come to an end with the defeat of Daesh. Meanwhile, elements within the PMF that instigate sectarian tendencies and violate the law must be purged and firmly dealt with. It is of utmost importance that the existence of militias and paramilitary forces outside the control of the state should end.
NM: Iraq has suffered heavily as a result of the sectarian strife and the fact that powerful regional forces such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are fighting a proxy war in in the country, as is also the case in Yemen and Syria. How do you assess the chances of the Iraqi government overcoming such influences and pursuing a national sovereignty policy?
Ali: The Iraqi government is attempting to avoid taking sides and getting dragged into the regional axes and shifting alliances, led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, that have deepened sectarian polarization in the whole region. This task has been made even more difficult with the deep internal political crisis caused by the sectarian-ethnic quota system that was imposed on Iraq after the U.S. war and invasion in 2003.
The ruling political groups that share power on the basis of this system, as well as pursuing sectarian politics, have close connections to the above-mentioned regional powers and many are subservient to them. Political infighting among these groups, over power and wealth, have opened the door to external interference, which has turned Iraq into a battlefield for proxy wars.
This has been further complicated by the arrival of the new American administration led by Donald Trump and its escalating confrontation with Iran. The escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran will create additional problems for the Iraqi government and the management of its relations with both sides. The recent developments on regional and international levels could have serious repercussions for Iraq, not only in its ongoing battle against the terrorist forces of Daesh, but also for Iraq’s future post-Daesh.
NM: There were major demonstrations in Baghdad a few weeks ago protesting against corruption and the undemocratic electoral system in which a number of participants were killed. What is the main grievance of the people with regard to current administration of Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi?
Ali: Mass demonstrations and rallies have continued in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Baghdad and in other provinces since late July 2015. They have voiced popular demands against corruption and the sectarian-ethnic quota system and have called for urgent political reforms and judicial reforms, as well as the provision of basic services. The peaceful demonstrations increasingly condemned sectarian politics and called for a democratic civil state as the alternative.
Recent demonstrations in Baghdad also demanded replacing the Electoral Commission with a truly independent commission that is not based on the sectarian-ethnic system. The protestors called for a just electoral law, opposing attempts by the ruling blocs and their representatives in parliament to amend the existing current law for the provincial elections (which are supposed to take place next September) with the aim of effectively raising the electoral threshold and ensuring that civil democratic forces are marginalized.
A big demonstration on February 11, raising these just demands, was brutally attacked by shadowy armed elements within the security forces. Live bullets, as well as plastic bullets and tear gas, were used. The death toll has now reached 12 people, and hundreds were injured.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered an investigation into the shooting, but nothing has come of it. A huge demonstration took place a few days later in Liberation Square, protesting against the killings and carrying symbolic coffins, demanding that those responsible for the crime be brought to justice.
It is important to point out that the popular protest movement emerged against a background of a deep political, economic, and social crisis. Social and class inequalities have deepened as a result of the polarization in the distribution of incomes and wealth. Our party, the Iraqi Communist Party, has fully supported the protest movement and its legitimate demands. We believe that true reform, which is the first step towards achieving change in the political, economic, and social structure, can only be achieved through escalating popular pressure.
NM: The ICP held its 10th National Congress in December of last year. What were the main outcomes of this congress and what will be the main focus of the party’s struggle in short and the medium terms?
Ali: The 10th National Congress of the party was held in Baghdad under the slogan “Change – For a Democratic Federal Civil State and Social Justice.” The meeting elaborated the party’s vision for change through achieving the “democratic civil alternative.”
This desired change can only be brought about through building a system of a political alternative that breaks the monopoly of power which is based on secondary identities and reproducing them. The “democratic civil alternative” would ensure rebuilding the economy, society, and state on a new basis – a state based essentially on the principle of citizenship, with all its citizens enjoying equality, without discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, color, religion, sect, creed, opinion, or social and economic status. It is a state of institutions and law that provides a dignified life to its citizens through comprehensive social security, thus providing a reasonable measure of social justice. It emphasizes the interconnection between political and social democracy.
The path towards true reform, change and achieving a federal democratic civil state that ensures social justice requires a persistent struggle in order to achieve a change in the balance of political forces. This can be achieved through establishing a strong civil democratic movement, building national supra-sectarian alliances, and mobilizing a broad spectrum of forces that are supportive of reform and change.
In this endeavor, we need to strengthen the role of the democratic forces, continue the peaceful, organized, and disciplined popular pressure, broadening its ranks and drawing into it new popular strata. Combating corruption is a major factor in this struggle. It is also important to prepare for the forthcoming provincial and also the parliamentary elections in 2018.
These tasks require exerting greater efforts to strengthen the Iraqi Communist Party and its organizations, enhancing its performance on all levels, building a broad network of relations with the masses, and defending the interests of the working people.
NM: What is your party’s view about the regional impact of the Trump administration’s foreign policy realignment with Turkey and Saudi Arabia? Where would Iraq fit into this?
Ali: As I said earlier, the initial moves of the new U.S. administration raise grave fears of further destabilization of the Middle East, supporting Israel’s aggressive policy towards the Palestinian people, deepening sectarian polarization, and escalating tensions and confrontation with Iran.
These moves have been welcomed by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Such developments could have serious repercussions, however, for the peoples and countries of a region that is already suffering terrorism, military intervention, and proxy wars waged by regional and international powers.
There is a danger of expanded U.S. military interference in the area, thus exerting greater pressure for a direct military presence and the dispatching of combat troops. The Iraqi people, along with other peoples in the region, will be the victims of such warmongering policies of imperialism and its reactionary allies in the region. It is therefore of utmost importance for Iraq to resist such pressures and to strive to build good and peaceful relations with all its neighbors, based on cooperation, mutual respect and interests, and non-interference in internal affairs.
NM: Indications are that within next few months an independent Kurdish state could be formed in what is now northern Iraq. What is ICP’s position on this issue?
Ali: Let me point out first that the Iraqi Communist Party continues to support the right of self-determination to the Kurdish people, and to all peoples, small and big. It has strived under all conditions to develop this general position in specific formulations that take into account the existing political reality and the conditions of society, the external developments and factors that surround them, and the relevant balance of forces in Iraq.
Therefore, while respecting the will of the Kurdish people and their legitimate desire, the party developed specific positions and slogans that reflected the need to satisfy the legitimate national rights of the Kurdish people. This resulted first in recognition of the Kurdish people’s autonomy and finally in calling for a federalist solution – Iraqi Kurdistan within a unified federal and democratic Iraq. This position was endorsed by the Iraqi opposition forces before the fall of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in 2003 and was later stipulated in the permanent constitution in 2005.
Our party considers federalism to be the appropriate and democratic solution for the Kurdish national issue in the present concrete conditions of Iraq. The new federal experience, with its complexity and the internal and external challenges it is facing, therefore requires a continuous constructive dialogue to resolve the problems and differences that arise.
It is also very important to resist the influence of chauvinist and racist elements, narrow nationalist positions, and sabotage by external forces that do not want to see Iraq being stable, democratic, and unified on the basis of respect for pluralism and diversity. This desire by our party and the efforts it exerted in this direction have faced obstacles by the ruling political forces that are defending narrow interests produced by the infamous sectarian-ethnic quota system.
The relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) became more tense as a result of the accumulation of unresolved problems, unfulfilled agreements, and other harmful measures for which both sides are responsible. This has been further complicated by the onslaught of the terrorist forces of Daesh in 2014 and the resulting displacement of millions of people, all of which put a heavy burden on the Kurdistan region. All this coincided with the reduced financial resources of the state after the drop in international oil prices and the imposition of austerity measures.
We believe that the priority at present is to focus on combating terrorism, building democracy and its institutions, and activating dialogue. This is the right path to strengthen the experience of federalism, so as serve the rights of the Kurdish people and the Iraqi people as a whole.