Muayad Ahmed is the secretary of the central committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq. He is currently in Britain after spending time recently in Sulaimaniya (in Iraqi Kurdistan) and in Baghdad. He spoke to Martin Thomas about conditions in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.
MA: People’s daily life has changed dramatically. People are worried, always expecting the worst — carnage, slaughter by Daesh [the “Islamic State” movement or ISIS], and so on.
A very bad atmosphere exists in Kurdistan. And every day in Baghdad, people see the effects of Daesh, their killings, car bombs and so on.
When Daesh seized the city of Mosul, confidence in the government, the army, and the police collapsed. After those terrible things happened in Mosul, many people in Baghdad believed there was no-one to defend them. They feared an advance by Daesh on Baghdad, and there are always lots of people in the media whipping up fear.
Everyday life, especially for women, the unemployed, the poor and the oppressed, has become more dramatic, more tense, more difficult after the collapse in Mosul.
People did not previously believe that Daesh was a real threat especially to Kurdistan. They saw them as crazy people, doing wild things, who would find no support. They never thought them capable of occupying cities and taking over a third of Iraq.
Many people have escaped from the areas taken by Daesh. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced.
Some young people in Mosul are struggling against Daesh, fighting them individually, in their own way. We knew that from left activists who have been in touch with those people.
People from areas under Daesh control close to the city of Kirkuk have described the brutality of Daesh to me. Daesh killed a lot of people, many more than we heard about in the media, when they took over places. They killed people who had been armed by the government, unemployed people who took up arms in pay of the government..
In those areas, many young people whose relatives have been killed by Daesh are furious and wait for the right time to attack Daesh and get rid of them, but they can’t do much while Daesh is advancing.
MT: What kind of resistance in Mosul?
MA: We have heard that some people have tried to plant bombs in Daesh places to kill militants and defend themselves.
People were resisting the Maliki government. They weren’t expecting Daesh. And then suddenly they find themselves under occupation by a much more aggressive force. It took them by surprise.
It is not only the minorities — the “Christians”, “Yazidis” and the “Shi’a”, described as such by the media, who have run away. Many members of the local “Sunni” Arab majority have also fled.
Yet women try to resist, too, in a low-level way.
MT: Is this resistance limited by the attitude of both the KRG forces and of the Shi’a militias? I am thinking about the reconquest of Amerli from Daesh, where KRG and Shi’a militias were reported as having met at a nearby village where all the local Sunni Arab people had fled, and agreeing between them that they will not allow those Sunni Arabs to return to their village.
MA: I don’t think that is a big factor. There is no political space with such a force as Daesh. People are suffering from the brutality, and they are united to defeat Daesh. Other abuses are regarded as minor compared to that.
MT: What do ordinary people think in Sulaimaniya, about the PKK [the main Turkish-Kurdish nationalist force] and the YPG [the main militia among the Syrian Kurds, linked to PKK]?
MA: We must accept that the perspectives of Kurdish nationalism are dominant, in Iraqi Kurdistan in particular. But at the same time people have years of experience of the rule of the Kurdish nationalist parties.
Any act by the nationalists is amplified by the media which they control, to promote them. The resistance in Kobane is important, a symbol for everyone who will stand up to Daesh; but the nationalists wish to benefit from that, to turn it to their advantage. The majority of people are supporting that resistance.
The PKK present themselves as left. The parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and the PUK, do not do that today.
But at the beginning, even the KDP used to adopt a sort of “Marxist” rhetoric. The main wing in side the PUK called itself Marxist-Leninist during the late seventies. At present PKK considers itself a Kurdish nationalist party and acts accordingly. If it takes power, it will behave like the other parties (KDP and PUK). They are nationalist, and their rhetoric makes no fundamental difference: they behave in accordance with their class basis.
On Kobane, we are clear: we strongly support the resistance of women and men fighting Daesh. We want this resistance to be repeated, viewed as a model. But we do not want the nationalists to use this resistance to further their agendas.
MT: I talked a couple of months ago with Dashty Jamal of the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan, who had been in Sulaimaniya. He reported some anti-Arab feeling in Sulaimaniya, but he said it was limited and people were speaking out against it. Has that got worse or better?
MA: I think that has got better. Now people see that the problems underlying Daesh are more complex. They see that the PUK and KDP are agreed on staying in Iraq.
The US has much greater powers in Iraq now than before. This alignment has had an effect in Kurdistan, pushing people back away from a more hard-line nationalist way of speaking. You used to meet some people who were very nationalist, some even almost racist. You get less of that now.
MT: Dashty reported very bad living conditions for refugees in Sulaimaniya. How is it now?
MA: There has been very little economic activity there even before the Daesh advance — since February 2014, when Baghdad cut off redistribution of tax revenues to Iraqi Kurdistan because of a dispute about oil contracts. Money is not coming from Baghdad for teachers, government employees, etc. Many people are going with one month’s pay every three months.
Many young people are unemployed. Work has stopped on many construction projects. Recently refugees have been in a slightly better situation than they used to be, but it depends on the weather. There was rain the other day and the area round many refugees’ tents turned to mud.
The future of their children and their livelihoods are in a mess. There have been over a million displaced and refugees in all Iraq during the last few months.
MT: That will get worse as it gets colder in the winter?
MA: Yes, and other people will be at risk if Daesh makes other attacks.
MT: What do people think about what the US is doing now?
MA: In Kurdistan, most people, under the influence of the nationalists, accept the narrative that the US got rid of Saddam. They don’t mind further intervention. They accept it.
But they feel that they have not benefited from the rule of the nationalist parties. Unemployment and uncertainty is widespread. The gap between the rich and the poor is very wide. Some people have got very, very rich. The KDP and PUK have implemented a complete neoliberal agenda. The idea has become widespread, influenced by this neoliberal agenda, that having private services, education, and health provision is fine and the government is not responsible for providing education, health and so on.
There are a lot of generous corporate handouts from the government; there is a new layer of capitalists now.
MT: In Baghdad, how much more visible and powerful are the Shi’a militias since the collapse of the army in Mosul?
MA: In Baghdad, those militias are now everywhere, running checkpoints, doing the work of the police and so on. There are lots of checkpoints.
The militias are hand-in-hand with the government, but their link with the government is not regulated. They do what they want. Even in Basra, the Shia militias have used the situation to get control of security matters. The militias are even killing people especially in Baghdad, mostly Sunni people. People are afraid.
Asaib Ahl Al-Haq is the most powerful Shi’a militia. They are a split from the Sadrists, now linked with Maliki and others in the Shi’a political Islam camp. The second biggest is the Badr Corps, which is linked to the Supreme Islamic Council. And there is the Sadrist group, Saraya al-Salam. But Asaib Ahl al-Haq is the most frightening.
Most people in Iraq are living in hope that the security problem will be resolved through the establishment of a stable cabinet. So when the new cabinet arrived, people felt that there would be a change, at least a bit more security and a slightly better life.
Nowadays, after the Daesh advances, people in the South are losing what little confidence they had in the government.
In Baghdad, everyone has got arms at home. I think that people in Baghdad will fight Daesh. The displacement of eight million people would be unimaginable for the people there. And people in the city know that everyone there will be considered as Shi’a by the Islamists of Daesh.
MT: What is your party’s assessment of the new government in Baghdad, the Abadi government?
We see the Abadi government as a result of the collapse of the Maliki government, but it does not mark a dramatic change in the overall Shi’a sectarian and regressive outlook of the government.
Under Maliki, Sunni Islamists and Arab nationalism felt that they were sidelined, they needed to assert themselves. Daesh was previously seen as a very marginal political force, but it has become clear that it is a real force. With these new developments Sunni Islamism and Arab nationalism have again become a tangible power in the so called “political process” .
We say that we must fight to defeat Daesh. There can be no life under Daesh. It must be resisted by force of arms. Our slogan is for people’s defence units, both in areas controlled by, and areas threatened by, Daesh. We call on people to arm themselves to stand up to Daesh, and for the government not to prevent the people from arming independently — otherwise they will be giving people up to Daesh for the slaughter. We have begun creating our own armed units and working to arm the people.
If the people were able to defeat Daesh anywhere, then there would be a greater push for direct intervention into politics by the people, and an opening for the left.
MT: In the conflict between KRG and IS, we see an analogy with the Spanish civil war of 1936-9. In Spain our comrades were on the side of the Republic against the fascists, but also on the side of the workers and left-wingers who were against the bourgeois and Stalinist government of the Republic which repressed the workers and eventually lost the war. Similarly, we are on the side of the KRG against Daesh, but on the side of the workers and the left against the KRG.
MA: We don’t consider Daesh as a political force. They are gangs of criminals and they should be defeated. We don’t agree with anyone who will accommodate this kind of group in Iraqi politics. They are terrorists, slaughtering people.
But we do struggle against the government, against the bourgeoisie parties: the nationalists and political Islam parties , against any parties which are ruling .
We deal with the reality. We want Daesh to be defeated. It is impossible to do anything under Daesh. A clear line must be drawn against Daesh, against any accommodation with them.
Daesh drew its strength from the regressive nature of all the parties acting in Iraq. We said that the regressive and backward nature of Iraqi politics helped give rise to Daesh. We say: do not mix with any of these parties, find your own independent path.
MT: It seems to me one of the big political lessons is the need for secularism. Some would say that the Islamic wording in the Iraqi constitution is harmless because most people there are Muslim, but particularly in this situation in Iraq,, but it isn’t harmless. It gives rise to politics based on what you think religious teachings are, which by definition can’t be debated democratically.
So the idea that secularism is a good idea but is something for the distant future is refuted by these events.
MA: It’s not only a secular basis we need. There’s a failure of all the sectarian and nationalist politics, we’ve got nowhere with these trends and political currents. This conflict in the Middle East did not come out of the sky. It comes from the political, economic and social infrastructure, or base.
Just secularism would not be an alternative to the political and social trends in the Middle East. In my view, socialism is the only real alternative that can bring change to the region, and the material base of this socialism is there, the problem is the political readiness for doing it. Otherwise this cycle of violence will be repeated for decades and decades.
In Iraq, even in the 60s and 70s, people were much more socially free and women had stronger positions than they do today. The current regression isn’t a product of natural evolution. It has been brought about by politics in the interests of capital.
MT: What is your attitude to the US bombing, and how do you explain it? We would say, if the US bombs push Daesh back, that’s good, but you can’t support or have confidence in the US because of the record in Afghanistan, because the bombing is an alliance with corrupt regimes which helped create the Daesh problem, and because of the nature of the US state.
On the other hand you have people on the British left saying that the main thing is to stop the bombing, and saying that will stop the war, which is just not true and has the effect of minimising the danger from Daesh.
MA: It’s a problematic issue. We have to think about it very carefully. It’s similar to the argument about Saddam Hussein. We went against the US intervention in Iraq. It’s a war, it’s not about the change of regime, or supporting the people to change the regime, it was an imperialist kind of war. That will also apply to the US’s war now.
Help the people defeat Daesh, but not help the US intervention. You need to put the whole thing in context.