Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pretty much no one is optimistic about the prospects for democracy and a decent life for the people in that cradle of civilization. No one, that is, except for Iraq's communists. Amidst a society hobbled by corrupt power struggles and parasitic oil millionaires, the tenacious Iraqi Communist Party sees the seeds of positive social change emerging at the grassroots. "This is why we are optimistic," said Communist Party spokesman Salam Ali in an April 12 phone interview. "This is not a bleak situation."
The challenges are formidable.
Iraq's politics today are dominated by a group of well-financed self-serving power blocs. This is one legacy of the U.S. occupation, which from the start adopted policies that fanned religious sectarianism, shunned democratic and left groups, and instead anointed opportunistic self-styled leaders deemed cooperative with U.S. interests. While the country is safer now than a few years ago, continued violence - including almost weekly bomb attacks - is largely linked to power struggles among these dominant groups over influence and access to Iraq's enormous oil wealth. The violence has been intensifying in the lead-up to April 20 provincial elections, the first nationwide elections since the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011. These elections are seen as a dress rehearsal for national elections in 2014.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads a Shiite Islamic alliance, is pursuing "divisive politics - a heightened level of sectarian agitation - to divide his opponents, whether among his own Shiite allies or others, and to stir up his base" said Ali. Other major blocs, Sunni or Shia, are doing likewise.
Although oil revenues are booming, Iraq has over 25 percent unemployment - with the real rate being closer to 50 percent. Youth unemployment is rampant. Oil production actually produces relatively few jobs. But agriculture and non-oil industries account for no more than 4 percent of the gross national product. Except for oil, major national industries are at a standstill, operating at 20 percent of capacity, at best. Electricity is still irregular at best. Agriculture, in the former global "breadbasket," has huge potential, but most of Iraq's food is imported today. Iraq has become increasingly dependent on imports from Turkey and Iran, in particular.
But oil wealth and corruption has led to the emergence of a new parasitic class of millionaires who have no interest in rebuilding Iraq on a sound basis - not even a working market economy, Ali said. Instead their main concern is retaining their status.
"Sectarian politics is being used to divert attention from immediate problems," Ali said. "But it is pushing Iraq to the brink of war. It's a very dangerous situation."
The Maliki government has responded harshly to legitimate protests over lack of democracy and economic issues, and at the same time has moved very slowly, if at all, to address the real problems. This in turn has provided an opportunity for al-Qaeda-type groups and other ultra-reactionaries including Saddam Hussein supporters to mobilize and ramp up more extreme slogans and actions - even calling for taking up arms and setting up a Syria-type "Free Iraqi Army."
Iraqi commentator Seerwan Jafar has analyzed Iraq's homicide statistics and finds that the violence is confined to just half of Iraq's 18 provinces. The other half have homicide rates lower than Western countries including the U.S. Why? "Many of unsafe Iraq's provinces are former bases for extremist Sunni Muslim groups like al-Qaeda." Violence there "comes because of the clash between them and Iraq's federal government forces," he writes.
"[T]he perpetrators of extremist and violent acts are a mixture of religious radicals, both local and foreign, die-hard elements from the former regime headed by Saddam Hussein, former army officers, unemployed youth without prospects, random criminal elements that emerged in the post-2003 chaos and which have yet to be subdued and more generally, violent elements that are supported by Iraqi political groups to utilize violence to advance their own political agendas."
For the first time since some U.S. officials floated the idea several years ago, some in Iraq talk of dividing the country along sectarian lines - Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. So far, said Ali, the idea has not gained traction. But the crisis in Syria is growing increasingly sectarian, and could have a destabilizing impact on Iraq.
Hanaa Edwar, a prominent Iraqi women's advocate who heads the nongovernmental Iraqi Amal Association, said recently that women's status has suffered from "a fabricated sectarian hatred which started in 2006 and which has been imposed and boosted from the highest levels to divide and rule through violence and fear."
For example, she said, domestic violence crimes are on the rise and women not wearing the hijab - the Islamic veil - are being discriminated against.
"The lack of dialogue between the leading political parties, and the ever growing role of religion is choking our society," she said.
Yet there is considerable push-back against efforts to repress women, Ali noted, and the government has been forced to pay lip-service to women's rights. Other protests have compelled the government to retreat on a number of regressive measures. At Basra University, students are waging an ongoing campaign against a ban on graduation celebrations. Human rights organizations are active throughout the country. Unions are resisting government efforts at repression. A new Journalists Union was formed earlier this year. And a broad Iraqi Democratic Current coalition of left and liberal groups is organizing Iraqi people to oppose sectarian politics.
The Iraqi Communist Party's membership is growing. Last month it held a lively celebration of its 79th anniversary in a public park in Baghdad, attended by representatives of Iraq's president and leading political figures from Maliki's bloc and others. The party has gained recognition for holding mass forward-looking events like this, and is seen as a party of "clean hands" amidst the surrounding corruption.
This is why Iraq's Communists remain optimistic.
Photo: Supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party march in Baghdad, July 14, 2011. The demonstrators marked July 14, 1958 coup that toppled the Iraqi monarchy and brought to power left-leaning nationalist Abdul Karim Qassem. AP