By Clive Bradley
Muayad is a soft-spoken Iraqi who meets me in a busy railway station and insists that he pay for the coffee. When he recalls protests outside the offices of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, it's hard to imagine. "American soldiers were holding their guns on their chests and pointing them at our heads. If things had got out of control, we could have been killed."
But that's the strongest impression I get from talking to him. The media's version of Iraq is often all fanatics and terrorists, strangely larger-than-life characters. Muayad talks about ordinary people involved in grass-roots campaigns, the daily reality of life in post-Saddam Iraq, and the struggles of working-class people.
He returned to Iraq soon after the fall of Saddam, and spent five months there, mainly in Baghdad and Kirkuk, as one of the organisers, among other things, of the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq (UUI), an initiative of the Worker-Communist Party, whose politbureau he sits on.
Unemployment stands at 60-70%. After 12 years of sanctions, and then war, millions of people are in poverty. Although workers in most of the state sector are given a monthly wage of $60, private sector workers and the unemployed get nothing. Recognising the "huge desire to do something about this", the WCPI set up the UUI, which grew quickly: 26,000 registered members in Baghdad, 86,000 in Nasiriyah. Muayad was one of the Baghdad organisers. Along with demonstrations - including one of a 1,000 people - they held a 48-day "sit-down" protest outside the CPA offices in the centre of the city.
"I was one of the negotiators with the Americans [the army]. We had three main demands: social benefit of $100; for decent jobs to be created; and for the UUI to be given a role in distributing humanitarian aid." At the moment, much of this aid falls into the hands of corrupt people and outright criminals.
Organisations like the UUI, Muayad comments, "are very dependent on material gains. You have to get something very quickly. Unfortunately, we couldn't do that because of the Americans' reluctance. Even so, the UUI became very well known, and we have started to open offices in other cities."
So what exactly - apart from pointing guns at their heads - was the CPA's response? "They were very aware they had to resist our demands. They were very aggressive, saying that if they gave in to the demand for $100 a month, millions of people would register with us, and then we would want to be part of the government They weren't prepared to give in at all on the question of social benefits. It would be a very costly project, and they weren't prepared even to negotiate the amount."
The CPA was less dogmatic on the issue of creating jobs - something in any case they are anxious to do. "But they were only talking about unskilled, low-paid jobs in the municipalities." Finally, they rejected all the UUI's demands.
The UUI is known to be the creation of the WCPI. But its growth was quick - a hundred people a day turning up at the office to register - from all sections of society: Sunni, Shi'a, Kurd, Arab. Each day, the composition of the protest would change, Muayad recalls. "Some people would stay, of course, but there were changing faces, people we hadn't seen before." He thinks the poverty of most Iraqis is a real factor inhibiting the union's success: people can't even afford the public transport to get to the demonstrations.
Muayad was also involved in a "preparatory committee for shuras [councils] and trade unions" - unlike the UUI, an initiative which the WCPI has got involved in. "We formulated the objectives and demands of the preparatory committee. There were so many struggles - on the railways, for example. The old management was linked to the regime." The Committee, with the UUI, has occupied the offices of the old Ba'thist unions, and has also begun to organise in the textile industry, tobacco, electricity, and oil - mainly state-run enterprises, it seems. "It has a leftist attitude, and supported the UUI's demonstrations."
With such a broad base, I wondered how the UUI, or other working-class organisations, dealt with the Islamist movements. The poorest part of Baghdad, which under the Ba'thists was called Saddam City, is a stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr, the most militant of the Islamist leaders, whose followers have renamed the neighbourhood after him. Muayad and his comrades still argue for keeping the old name - Thawra (Revolution) City - which it was given when the suburb was built, by the nationalist regime brought to power in the 1958 revolution.
"In a square in Thawra City, the Islamists tried to remove a historical statue. We launched a campaign, and they were forced to abandon it." This was symbolic of a wider struggle.
The Islamists have tried to discredit the UUI by pointing to its "communist" origins. But this, according to Muayad, hasn't been very successful. "The Islamists are interested in their own things - in making women wear the hijab, in stopping people from drinking alcohol, preventing cinemas from showing foreign films. These were their priorities, not poverty and unemployment. It was very easy for people to recognise that the UUI stood for things which were relevant to their lives."
Straight after the fall of the regime, when the looting started, the Islamists "told people to take things to the mosques. But then they used them for their own benefit - they deceived people. Everyone in Thawra City talks about this."
In the northern city of Kirkuk, The WCPI was involved in the work to establish shuras, or councils, in different neighbourhoods. He believes these will play a major role, since although ethnic tensions - between Arabs, Kurds, and Turcomans - have died down since conflicts earlier this year, they could flare up again. The shuras group people together on a non-ethnic basis. They have been built in three districts of Kirkuk.
In the past, the WCPI called for independence for Kurdistan. Now, in post-Saddam Iraq, they oppose calls for Kurdish independence, thinking it more important to oppose the ethnic division, and ethnic politics that goes with it, of the country. Right now, Muayad thinks - he is Kurdish himself - there is no meaningful national oppression of the Kurds. That could change, in which case so would the party's policy. "At the moment," Muayad says, "we oppose and compromise with the Kurdish nationalists who control Kurdistan under the pretext of Kurdish national oppression."
As the force behind the UUI, and also initiatives like the Women's Organisation for Freedom, which held its founding conference over the summer, the Worker-Communist Party itself is growing. "Communism is still a live tradition in Iraq," Muayad believes. The Communist Party was a mass force in the late 1950s, although its members were slaughtered at the time of the first Ba'thist coup in 1963. The CP never recovered, suffering several major splits: it joined the Ba'th government in the early 1970s.
There's a difference, Muayad insists, "between the tradition of communism and its leaders. People are critical of the CP's record. But they have been educating their children in secret about communism." Many people from this tradition, especially from the more radical splits from the CP, have been joining the WCPI. "Any worker who has not been affected by nationalism or Islamism automatically thinks about communism". It is the only other tradition with roots in society.
"The old CP was compromised with nationalism and Islamism. We are offering a new vision of communism which doesn't have any link with nationalism and sharply challenges political Islam. People are accepting the alternative we are giving, not because of theory, but because we have practical answers."
The WCPI's paper, Worker Communist, has a weekly circulation of 10,000. The slogans on its masthead read "Equality, freedom, workers' government."
"We were against the war," Muayad explains. "We don't take any sort of nationalistic stand toward the occupation, but we understand it as part of American hegemony over the world. Iraq has been occupied by the Americans for world-wide domination purposes, for right-wing policies and objectives.
We didn't see the war as liberation. We said it would create a tragic scenario, bringing forth conflicting forces that will destroy society. We were against the Ba'thist regime, but we were struggling to overthrow it through mass initiatives. Now, society is being destroyed. There is no state. There is no security. Millions of people are without jobs. Uncertainty about their future is hanging over their heads every single minute. The occupation is not an experiment to bring about democracy."
The occupation is feeding the growth of "nationalist" (the term he often uses to describe the Ba'thists) and Islamist terrorists. Muayad is in no doubt that the right term to describe these people is "terrorist". "I don't want to define it as resistance," he tells me. "All these acts are acts of terrorism, and the Islamists and the nationalists are benefiting from the occupation because it gives them reasons to agitate. The occupation is creating this aggressive reaction. The Americans want to succeed in stabilising the country. But the occupation itself is a source of instability."
The American-appointed Governing Council, he describes as "ethno-Islamic". "They are all reactionary forces." He mentions, for instance, the leader of Sciri (the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), an organisation closely linked to the Islamic Republic in neighbouring Iran, whose leader was murdered, with more than 100 other people, by a bomb blast in August. The dead cleric's brother is a member of the Governing Council. Muayad remembers: "Thousands of prisoners of war were killed by them during the Iran-Iraq war. Normal people hate them. They are themselves responsible for crimes."
Many other members of the Council are compromised with the Ba'th. "Iyad Alawi is a former top-level Ba'thist who fell out with Saddam. Ahmed Chalibi is a bank fraudster on the Pentagon's payroll. None of them has the legitimacy to rule," says Muayad. "We are critical of all of them."
Muayad is optimistic about the possibilities for what he calls "worker-communism" in Iraq; but realistic, too. "The main thing is that the masses are not politically active. We have been surrounded by an objective environment which is passive. All these groups - nationalists, Islamists, Shi'a groups, Kurdish nationalists - are responsible for the misery of the people. A new practical communism can bring about change. But the objective environment is defined by the masses being under the impact of poverty, and not politically active. At the same time, people are looking for an alternative."
That they find an alternative, quickly, is vital in his view. Iraqi capitalism had no alternative to Saddam Hussein and dictatorship. "We have to fight to get our alternative, our message, across. And the people will become political active." But: "If the masses are not politically engaged, it will end up not in democracy, but dictatorship again, maybe sponsored by the Americans. It will be more decades of darkness."
I think it is for this reason that he was anxious to make me understand that the WCPI doesn't see itself as an "opposition party": the tasks are too urgent. "Either worker-communism and our party will be transformed into a powerful force giving shape to the future political system, or more tragedies for the Iraqi people are on their way."
Muayad wants international support for the WCPI. "Our party is leading this, with other social organisations, the UUI, The Women's Organisation for Freedom, etc. We need international support. There is huge potential for progressive international support, to shape the political future of Iraq."
- Worker-communist Party of Iraq: http://www.wpiraq.org/