Iraq: Telling the Left from the Right

How many Americans who oppose the looming war know the left from the right when it comes to Iraq? The only two players on the field are not George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. For inside and outside the borders of Iraq there is a political opposition to Saddam — and while some of those opponents are now aligned with the White House, others remain on the political left.

But don’t expect to read or hear much about any Iraqi leftist groups in the mainstream or even the “alternative” press.

In past U.S. foreign-policy conflicts, American activists frequently expressed their solidarity with and support of embattled leftists, whether in Chile, Nicaragua or El Salvador. But in this standoff with Iraq, American leftists seem woefully ignorant of their Iraqi counterparts and, consequently, of their views on the present conflict. And for these Iraqi leftists the current crisis transcends the prevailing American leftist view, which reduces the matter simply to either war or peace.

Today, Iraqi leftists play an important oppositional role against Saddam. Foremost among them is the Iraqi Communist Party, which at one time was that country’s biggest and broadest leftist mass movement, touching the lives of literally millions. Even before Iraq’s short-lived, British-imposed monarchy was overthrown in 1958, the Communist Party was organizing trade unions and other civic groups.

The leftist party has also long been Iraq’s most diverse political movement, cutting across traditional population lines to incorporate many disenfranchised majority Shias and minority Kurds. Even though tens of thousands of Communists and other leftists have perished in Saddam’s gulags and are still actively targeted by the ruling Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi CP today maintains a clandestine network across Iraq that experts deem to be of significant scale and political potential.

That network provides some of the best and most detailed reporting on armed resistance and government repression within Iraq. Indeed, human-rights activists, from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International, rely heavily on the detailed reporting that comes out of Iraq via this network. “[T]he bodies of tens of people from the city of Basra, who were executed by firing squads of the dictatorial regime in late March 1999, are buried in a mass grave in the Burjesiyya district near the town of Zubair, about 20 km southeast of Basra,” reads the Iraqi Communist Party Web site in an article about a brief anti-Saddam uprising three years ago in the Shi’a-dominated, southernmost city. “Some of the victims fell into the hands of security forces after being wounded, or when their ammunition had finished. But most of the arrests took place during the following days when the authorities . . . unleashed an unprecedented campaign of police raids, house searches and detentions.” The report concludes that 400 to 600 people died in this massacre. “The massacre culminated with security men firing their handguns at the [h]eads of their victims,” says the report. “The horrific scene ended with throwing the bodies of victims in a deep pit dug with a bulldozer which was used later to cover up the site in an attempt to hide the traces of the crime.”

Today, Iraqi Communists, and most Iraqi leftists, firmly oppose the Bush administration’s war plans — but not necessarily war itself. Unlike many of their American counterparts, Iraqi leftists offer a policy alternative other than a vague call for “peace.” Instead of a unilateral U.S. invasion, Iraqi leftists want the international community to back an Iraqi-led military uprising against Saddam.

Short of that, Iraqi leftists would most likely support a multilateral military intervention that would not only overthrow Saddam but also hand him over to an international tribunal that would try him on charges of crimes against humanity.

Iraqi leftist groups also favor other positions routinely ignored by most American leftists, including vigorous U.N. human-rights monitoring inside Iraq. Most American anti-war activists also downplay another issue that Iraqi leftists are most worried about. What might a post-Saddam Iraq look like? The Communist Party and other Iraqi leftist groups refused to join the recent U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition meeting in London, pointing out that Washington has only been planning to replace Saddam’s regime with another minority dictatorship. The Iraqis closest to Washington remain deposed aristocrats, although the Bush administration finally dumped the plan, backed by the Pentagon alone, to restore exiled former supporters of the Kingdom of Iraq, which prevailed for [37] years, to power as the Iraqi National Congress.

Instead of the U.S.-backed return of the old ruling class, the Communist Party and Shi’a and Kurdish opposition groups want U.N.-monitored elections inside a post-Saddam Iraq leading to a federal representative government. This is an ongoing struggle yet to be adequately reported, unfortunately, in any U.S. publication, and the issue represents a genuinely democratic frontline with, so far, few if any so-called American progressives on it.

American and Iraqi leftists also differ over whom to blame for any coming war. The Iraqi CP blames not only the Bush administration, but also the Iraqi government. In this regard, the Iraqi Communist Party ironically joins the Bush administration in unequivocally demanding that Saddam fully cooperate with U.N. inspections to prevent his regime from developing more weapons of mass destruction. “The rulers” of “the dictatorial regime in Iraq,” reads an Iraqi CP declaration, put “their selfish interest above the people’s national interest, refusing to allow the [work] of U.N. weapons inspectors, and thus preventing action to spare our people and country looming dangers.”

Any U.S. leftist who even remotely thinks that Saddam’s regime is — beside its heavy-handedness — some sort of socialist alternative had better think again. No matter how much Saddam relies on the Stalinist model for his security services, the Iraqi dictator has never held anything but contempt for Iraqi leftists.

At 22, Saddam Hussein carried out his first assassination plot, against a Communist-backed leader in Baghdad who was the first president of Iraq. In fact, the young man from Tirkit was not accepted into the Ba’ath party until after he and others shot at President Abdel-Karim Qassem, who was backed by the Iraqi Communist Party and many trade unions. President Qassem survived, while Saddam was wounded in the leg.

Instead of leftist principles, Saddam’s ruling Ba’athist ideology unabashedly champions ethnic nationalism in order to build a greater nation based on ethnicity. [The name of h]is Iraqi Arab Socialist Ba’ath party explicitly excludes the one in every five Iraqis who are ethnic Kurds. Moreover, the Ba’athists’ Pan-Arab message is shaped mainly by Arabs of the Sunni Muslim faith like Saddam, and their form of Arab nationalism has little appeal for Arab Muslims of the Shia faith, who constitute three out of five Iraqis. Rather than empower either Iraq’s Shi’a majority or its Kurdish minority, the Ba’ath party merely replaced Iraq’s old rulers, who were Sunni Arab-led monarchists based in Baghdad, with new Sunni Arab-led rulers like Saddam from rural regions north of the capital.

“A ruling class-clan rapidly developed and maintained a tight grip on the army, the Ba’ath party, the bureaucracy, and the business milieus,” writes Faleh A. Jabar, a University of London scholar and former Iraqi Communist Party newspaper editor, in a recent issue of the U.S. monthly The Progressive. “You had either to be with the Ba’ath or you were against it.”

Today most of Kurdish-speaking Iraq, in the north, enjoys U.S.-enforced autonomy from Saddam’s regime, while Shias, in the south, still actively resist rule from Baghdad. Take Basra, where Saddam’s officials routinely bring visiting U.S. peace activists. “We were welcomed warmly into the home of Abu Haider, the father of a young boy who was killed three years ago by a U.S. Tomaha[w]k missile shot from a ship in the Gulf,” reads a pre-Christmas report from Pax Christi, a faith-based group. Pax Christi’s newsletter today says that this U.S. missile attack occurred in Basra in 1998. Undoubtedly true. But missing from that newsletter is that in that same year Saddam’s regime interred dozens of anti-Saddam rebels and others in secret graves in that same city, according to Iraqi Communist sources.

Opposing American imperialism is one thing. But ignoring Iraqi fascism is quite another. In the wake of the Gulf War, and after then-President Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up, mass armed rebellion swept Iraq in the spring of 1991. More than a dozen major cities fell into the hands of the Iraqi rebels. Yet, as American forces stood by with arms crossed, Saddam’s troops and attack helicopters drowned the rebellion in blood, taking at least 100,000 lives. The anti-Saddam opposition was openly and tragically betrayed by Washington.

American leftists and peace activists must not now repeat the same sin. Only a quintessentially American arrogance would lead leftists in a big country to think that leftists in a smaller country don’t matter. Iraqi socialists and leftists have endured Saddam’s Ba’athist terror long enough to know the left from the right in Iraq. And as our nation prepares to invade their country, more Americans, especially peace activists, should take the trouble to do the same.

Frank Smyth is finishing a book on the 1991 Iraqi uprisings, which he reported on for CBS News, The Economist and Village Voice.