Nadia Mahmood of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq discussed current developments in Iraq with Martin Thomas from Solidarity
Martin: The USA and the Maliki government in Iraq are negotiating an agreement. It looks as if it will say that US troops have to be out of Iraqi cities by June next year, and combat forces out of Iraq altogether by 2011.
The background here seems to be that the Maliki government is becoming more confident. Until recently, they felt they had to agree to almost anything the Americans wanted, because without American military support their government would collapse, but now they seem to feel they can hold.
It’s a big shift from the State Of Forces Agreement which the Americans were trying to push through a few months ago, which would essentially have made the American military a sort of parallel government in Iraq, with an indefinite mandate.
Of course there will probably be all sorts of let-out clauses. But it will be difficult for both the USA and the Maliki government to pull back from a June 2009 date for withdrawing troops from the cities, once they have announced it.
Nadia: Recently the Americans said that they were handing over the city of Khanaqin to local forces; but at the same time they announced that American troops would still be there!
The Americans are going to stay around, even if they say that they are going to leave the cities. Our aim is not just to get them out of the cities, but to get them out of the whole country.
But the al-Maliki government is more in control of the cities of Iraq. They have a better situation than, say, two years ago. Now they can say that they will not allow any militias apart from their army. They don’t allow the Mahdi Army to be a military power any more.
Iran backing al-Maliki, and Iran not wanting al-Maliki to be close to America, are also factors here. Al-Maliki would not sign the State Of Forces Agreement because Iran didn’t want it.
M: In some ways the government being stronger is a good thing, making them reject the State Of Forces Agreement. It also brings dangers.
This government still has Saddam Hussein’s anti-union laws. It has Decree 8750 from 2005, empowering it to seize all union funds. It has the decree it made which said that the oil industry management should not talk to the union. If it gets stronger, it may be in a position to implement these measures more strongly.
N: There have recently been strikes in Iraq, against the finance ministry, to demand the restoration of the pay increase granted in July to people employed by the government.
When the strikers were demonstrating outside the ministry, the Badr Corps [militia of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, SIIC, one of the parties in the government coalition] attacked them. The government is using terror through militias under the name of the Iraqi army.
Yes, the government is controlling more. There is a conflict between the trade unions and the government. There is also a conflict between the government and the Kurdish parties over control of the cities of Khanaqin and Kirkuk. This conflict between Arab and Kurd is very dangerous.
M: What should we be saying about the Iraqi government? For example, Iraq has a constitution, but it’s a terrible constitution. Should we be agitating for a new, democratic constitution? New elections? A new constituent assembly?
Could the Americans’ longer-term policy be that, once they have got the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army sticking together a bit, and themselves a little bit more into the background, they get a military coup which they can deny involvement with but which gives them a stable regime to deal with in Iraq? They don’t want parties close to Iran running Iraq.
N: It used to be that we were always talking against the occupation. Now, if you look at how people are talking in the labour movement, it’s not against the occupation in the first place, it’s against the government.
We have to be against this government. The workers’ movement has to stand up and elect its own representatives — fight for its own workers’ government,
This government is obeying the International Monetary Fund. The IMF is imposing conditions on the Iraqi government to restrict wages.
Three months ago the government increased wages for people employed by the government, which is a lot of people in Iraq. I was in Iraq at the time: everybody was happy about this wage rise.
Then in late August they said they had made a mistake and would take back the wage rise. That put people in trouble: they had used the wage rise to buy things. Two trade unions organised demonstrations, but the government still stopped the wage rise.
This government is representing the interests of the big companies and of the International Monetary Fund. It is not representing the workers. The workers ask why the government objects to them having a wage rise, when there is no problem about the MPs having a pay rise.
Once this government is settled, it will start further attacks, on wages, on privatisation, on making people pay for education and health. Once they have established a bit of security, they will turn to other issues.
They want to have just one trade union organisation in Iraq, but appointed by the government. The workers say that the government should not intervene in their right to organise themselves.
The government has also said that no trade union in Iraq is allowed to have a bank account, apart from what is approved by the government.
One of the demands the unemployed union is raising is that unemployed people should have jobs or social security from the government.
If we get a stable government, then the workers’ movement is going to have the same tasks as the workers in any other country with a stable government which represents the interests of the big companies, not the workers.
The workers are fed up with the government parties. People are now talking publicly against the Islamic parties and against Islamic figures like Sistani. They don’t have the same authority and respect they used to have.
The labour movement has suffered from the threats of the Islamic militias. In Basra, for example, Hassan Jumaa, who is the leader of the oil union, can’t say a word against the Islamic parties for fear of being assassinated. And the militias and the Islamic parties are trying to organise their own unions.
But we are involved in two trade union federations, the General Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions with Subhi Albadri, and the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions with Falah Alwan, which are clearly and publicly against the government.
M: What are the main issues around which the workers and the people in Iraq and and should be mobilised?
N: Economic demands, not political demands as yet. For example, wage rises, social security or jobs, opposition to privatisation, trade union rights.
There have also been some actions against the draft oil law, but the main thing that will bring people into action and onto the streets is wages.
The housing situation is very bad. But I don’t think there is space for a campaign for the government to build more houses. The first thing people want is electricity.
In Basra the electricity is two hours on, four hours off. But they can cut it at any time.
In June and July I was in Iraq: in Basra, Nasiriyah, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Sulaimaniya. In Baghdad, the social situation is different from one suburb to another. In one suburb, it may be like Afghanistan: women can’t walk on the streets without veils. You go to another suburb, and you see boys and girls together, and women wearing whatever they like and staying out late at night.
It’s the same city. But it depends on who is in power in each suburb.
In some you have the Sahwa militia [the “Awakening Councils”, Sunni militias co-opted by the Americans] in power. I spoke to some of them, young men: they said, before we got our salaries from Al Qaeda, now we get them from the Americans.
In the south, the Shia Islamic groups control whole cities. Women cannot go on the streets without veils. There are no shops selling alcohol.
If you go to Sulaimaniya, you see an economic boom. The city is becoming bigger and bigger. There are lots of new buildings, hotels, supermarkets, apartments. But the electricity doesn’t work.
If there’s all that money for the new buildings, why isn’t there electricity? The new buildings belong to private owners, and they have their own electricity generators, so they don’t care about the public supply.
You get small companies running generators and selling electricity, but it’s so expensive.
In Kurdistan, women have a better situation than in the south, but the male chauvinism is horrible. In my generation, there was a sense of respect for women, and some kind of equality; but now the new generation, girls aged 16, 17, 18, find themselves not allowed to mix with boys, or walk the streets alone.
And, across most of Iraq, there is no fun! Forget about swimming pools. Forget about night clubs. When I was a teenager living in Iraq, we used to go to night clubs, but not now.
I found that people just sit at home and watch the TV. Song and dance shows - and horrible songs. It’s depressing.
People are fed up with the Islamic parties, and with what their leaders do. For example, the Iraqi Hezbollah group - its leaders rape women, they kill them, and then they drink whisky, and pictures of that are sent on mobile phones. They are gangsters. Their support is based on families, or tribes. The Fadila party is based round a family that smuggles oil.
M: What is the view of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq on Kirkuk and Khanaqin?
N: The party says that these cities should be run by elected representatives of the people. We call on the people to elect their representatives. How to do it, that is the problem.
M: So you’re saying that the future of each of those cities should be decided by the people living there now? [Both cities suffered forced “Arabisation” under Saddam, and have seen re-”Kurdisation” since 2003].
N: Yes, absolutely.
M: Provincial elections in Iraq were due to happen in October. It now looks as if they won’t happen until early next year. What’s your assessment of the likely outcome, and has your party discussed participating in these elections?
N: No, we haven’t discussed participating. The elections are a business between the Islamic militias. For example, when the government attacked the Mahdi Army in Basra, in March 2008, that was all about preparing for the elections.
The elections are about how to share the cake among the Islamists, and they don’t hesitate to kill their competitors, or each other. There is no people’s involvement. It is among themselves. So we are not taking part.
The whole process that they call democracy - it has nothing to do with democracy, they are just deceiving people.
That’s why we say that people should organise themselves. That is why we contributed by organising the Iraqi Freedom Congress, to be a mass political party and an alternative.
With the Iraqi Freedom Congress, we could possibly go and participate.
M: The Iraqi Freedom Congress has some of the political slogans of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq, but none of the economic slogans. But you said that the economic and social questions are the ones that are most likely to mobilise workers at the moment. If you’re going to contest the elections - maybe in the same way that the socialists in Germany ran in elections in the late 19th century, even though their party, their meetings, and their newspapers were illegal, and built themselves by doing that - then surely you want to put forward the economic policies?
N: Our issue is a political issue, rather than a security issue. Some of our people have been killed by the Islamic militias, but now our members are walking the streets fairly openly. It is not because of security that we are not taking part. It is a political problem.
Our position is that the system was set up under the occupation, and it is not valid. Any government is going to be linked to and supervised by the occupiers.
Also, it may be that we would not get votes, and if we don’t get votes, then standing in elections is just exposing our weakness. Does it push our movement forward if we take part? If it does, then we do it. If it doesn’t, we won’t.
M: The governing parties seem to be worried that the Sadr movement will do well in the provincial elections.
N: I don’t think so. They are so exposed now. Nobody will trust them. They are based on gangsters.
M: Earlier in 2008, the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan was set up as a separate party from the Worker-communist Party of Iraq. Can you explain this?
N: It’s a very old story. Historically, the Worker-communist Party of Iraq was established in Iraqi Kurdistan. About 95% of our members were Kurdish. They used the Kurdish language.
In 2002 I, as an Arabic-speaker and maybe five others, got tired of the situation where this was supposed to be an Iraqi party but in fact it was a Kurdish party. We went to a conference of the party in Germany. I told them that if someone was passing the conference and listened, they would say it was a conference of a Kurdish party. We, the Arabic-speakers, were like ambassadors in the party. I said we needed to establish a Worker-communist Party of Iraq.
When the war started, we said we would put the subject on hold. In 2003, the party leadership went to Baghdad and they started work.
But we saw that Kurdistan and Iraq were developing really clear differences. We need two parties to respond to two different situations.
At our conference in 2006, we voted for two parties, but we didn’t do it. Eventually, in 2008, some of our comrades in Iraqi Kurdistan said they would establish the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan and continue to work in a comradely way with the Worker-communist Party of Iraq.
We said we would leave it to our members to decide individually in which party they would work.
M: Historically, the view of the socialist movement has been that you organise political parties based on states and not nationalities. For example, in the Tsarist Empire, the Marxists organised a party uniting workers from all the nationalities in the Empire, even though their view was that oppressed nations should have the right to separate.
N: The Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan is not a nationalist party. It is a party for an area which has not been under the central Iraqi government since 1991. The party says that it wants a vote in Kurdistan on its future, and it is for independence for Kurdistan. And now the Baghdad government is threatening to attack Kurdistan.
M: Quite a lot of Arabs have moved to Iraqi Kurdistan to find work, and a lot of Kurds live in Arab Iraq. Which party should they join?
N: It’s optional. If you are a Kurd and you live in Basra, and you want to support the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan, it is your right to choose. But with common sense, you would join the Iraqi party.
M: Tell us about the international labour conference, to take place in Erbil in February 2009...
N: Some leaders of unions in Iraq have signed to support the conference, and there is interest in it from trade unionists in the USA. I know that in Iraq the organisers have been negotiating with other unions.
M: What are the differences between the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq and the General Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq?
N: The leaders of both federations — Subhi Albadri of GFWCUI and Falah Alwan of FWCUI — are both members of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq.
Three years ago Falah was a member of the political bureau of the WPIraq. We told him: there are some members of your union, who are not members of the party, who have complaints about your policies. They say that you are dictating and not listening to them. Please take their complaints into consideration and try to compromise with them.
Falah said it was nothing. There were no problems. The people who were complaining were only talking about very small issues.
The problem grew and grew, until some of the members left. They established a new organisation — no, at first, they said they were the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, they claimed ownership of the trade union.
Falah had refused to hold a congress to elect a new leadership. We asked Falah why he didn’t listen to them.
So you had two groups claiming the same name. The party tried to intervene to get them to talk to each other. We got them to agree to have different names, GFWCUI and FWCUI.
Political differences between FWCUI and GFWCUI? I would say that there are no political differences whatsoever.
On the Erbil conference, however, because they see it as the GFWCUI’s conference, Falah won’t support it. He may change his mind in the future.
The party said that it will support any union that defends workers’ rights and organise movements. If it’s Falah, we will support Falah; if it’s Subhi, we will support Subhi; if it’s Hassan Jumaa, we will support him. The party will support any union that defends workers.