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The legacy of occupation and the fight for a democratic Iraq

Interview with the Workers Against Sectarianism (Iraq)

brian bean interviews Workers Against Sectarianism on the struggle against sectarian politics in Iraq.

This interview, though conducted earlier in the fall, provides important insights and updates on Iraqi politics and the ongoing challenges to the sectarian political system put in place by the U.S. occupiers, a system whose overthrow appears to be essential to the establishment of basic democratic rights in Iraq.

The interview is full of information about recent struggles in Iraq and references to the contemporary history, not all of which will be familiar to U.S. readers. For those who are interested in this recent history, here is a partial list of articles and videos: from the fall of 2014, Ashley Smith writes on the fruits of war and occupation, “Crisis in Iraq”; from early 2019, Phil Marfleet analyzes the massive protest movement in the summer of 2018, Iraq: what happened next?“; the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists published “Solidarity with Iraq popular protests” following the October (2019) uprising; two items from January 2020 assess the ongoing rebellion in Iraq and the region: Joseph Daher’s piece “The popular demonstrations continue!” and the video of a symposium Understanding the Iraqi protests featuring Dr. Zahra Ali; from July 2021 and with a broader overview on the prior ten years of history, Danny Postel’s piece “The other regional counter-revolution: Iran’s role in the shifting political landscape of the Middle East” includes Iran’s role in Iraq’s sectarian politics; lastly, from this past August, Socialist Worker UK published “Thousands occupy Iraqi parliament as political crisis intensifies,” which covers the parliamentary occupation and reviewed the role of Muqtada Al Sadr.

brian bean: Over the past several weeks, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr have carried out a number of protests and sit-ins of the Iraqi parliament related to an ongoing political crisis and the inability to form a new government since the November 2021 parliamentary elections. These protests are a far-cry from the popular mass rebellion seen in Iraq’s cities–the largest of which being the sit-in in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square–in 2019-2020 that forced out 3 governments in 10 weeks and during which, at times, the Sadrists played a reactionary role. What is your perspective on what is currently going on?

Workers Against Sectarianism: While Muqtada al-Sadr is an opportunist who always tries to exploit religious sentiments and popular anger against the regime for his own interests, the truth is that he is an essential part of the sectarian system in Iraq. He has been an active participant in the political process since the U.S. occupation. In every Iraqi election post-occupation, Muqtada al-Sadr has had a lion’s share of votes.

In every popular uprising Muqtada al-Sadr has played an opportunist role. He raised the demands of the demonstrators in 2001, played the role of a secularist in 2015, and played the role of a patriot in 2019. But in fact, he wants to exploit the masses in order to pressure the regime and rule the entire country, as he says in his tweets that Iraq is “the Iraq of the Sadrists.”

Today, he acts the role of a great father, a reformer, and a patriotic person who defends Iraq and the people of Iraq and defends minorities, but the truth is: Muqtada al-Sadr established his militia with the support of Iran and committed major crimes in the years 2003-2008 against minorities and the Sunni sect. He has been accused of mass murder and sectarian cleansing of Sunnism, Christians, Yazidis, and the Sabians religion.

Today, Muqtada al-Sadr wants to monopolize power and take advantage of popular anger against the regime. The Iraqi people know who Muqtada al-Sadr is and what he represents. Unfortunately, as there are no serious alternatives, we are forced to cling to any possible hope here or there. Al-Sadr is trying to strengthen the Arab-American axis through his relationship with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in order to stand against his strong competitors: the Popular Mobilization Forces (the armed wing of Iran).Muqtada al-Sadr is trying to stand by Al-Kazemi as long as possible in order to conclude greater agreements with the Saudi and American regime, including agreements related to electricity, security and intelligence agreements, as he wants to reduce dependence on Iran. He wants the regional Arab states to enter Iraq through al-Sadr’s gate, in order to weaken Iranian influence and strengthen Arab influence through him only, thus securing a monopoly on power.

The events transpiring in Iraq today are due to the impact of the October uprising on the Islamic parties and the sectarian system. The October uprising created a deep rift in the body of the sectarian system of Iraq and created constant tension between the parties as differences rose to a level they had not previously reached. It is important to note that Iraq has been without a government since 2018, when the election results resulted in an unelected personal victory that came through political consensus among Islamic parties. Al-Jamair has not participated in any elections since 2003, according to our view, but the participation rates in each election did not exceed 20 percent, especially the 2018 elections. It was expected that an uprising would occur in 2019 and it happened.

Since then, Iraq has been governed by a weak interim government and snap elections almost every year. This deepens people’s feelings of the illegitimacy of the government and popular anger is constantly increasing. The results of the early elections at the beginning of 2022 did not bring anything new. Rather, they were worse. The turnout was weak, popular anger high, and the result was very sad. and it surpasses Muqtada al-Sadr. The one who forms the government in Iraq is not the winner of the elections, but rather the person who can form the majority in the Iraqi parliament after the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr tried to agree with some Sunni politicians and some Kurds, but he did not succeed. This was due to the lack of trust and the difference in sectarian political projects between the parties.

The Coordination Framework, the rival party bloc to Muqtada al-Sadr, did the same, but it was also unsuccessful. Simply put, the system has come to an end, sectarian and national problems have deepened, and the parties can no longer answer people’s needs.

As a result, Muqtada al-Sadr decided to resign from Parliament in order to put pressure on the authority to hold other early elections according to his personal terms, but the Coordination Framework had the legal right to form a government as the second winner in the elections. Muqtada al-Sadr did not study this step well and as a result decided to storm Parliament by force in order to prevent a parliamentary session and therefore there would be no new prime minister.

Muqtada al-Sadr does not want to leave parliament until after new elections are held, where he alone wins according to his conditions. This is illogical, no matter how much he claims that he is a patriot and a reformer. Popular confidence in Muqtada al-Sadr here does not exist.

A poster on a green background featuring three abstract fitures engaged in combat at the top busting through fences and bars, a tall building, and a jeep. Text reads: Iraq Revolution: October 2019 Uprising in both English and Arabic.
Poster from the 2019 October uprising. Image by Alameenq.

bb: Can you reflect on the October protest movement and what the current state of Iraqi politics is at this political juncture. The covid lockdown had a massive effect in shutting down the major sit-ins. With the crisis still being unresolved, what is the state of the popular forces and that of the Iraqi Left? Who are the major organizations on the Left and what political role are they playing?

WAS: The situation is very sad. The forces of the October uprising were split between those who became participants in the political process and those choose to remain an opponent of the political process. The participants in the political process made a fatal error because the regime tore them apart from the inside. Most of the deputies resigned from the extension movement because they entered a corrupt, complex and highly sectarian system in which they had no experience. As for the opponents, they have continued to organize themselves, but they have also lost some hope and confidence in changing this system, and therefore are becoming weak. However there is still hope for them in establishing a unified movement that can overcome other political forces.

The new forces lack political experience, political vision, and lack organizational experience. Here it is important to mention that the system is deeply rooted in society such that you cannot get a job without being part of a sectarian party, you cannot feel safe without being part of a militia, etc. This means that the sectarian system is materially linked to people like Muqtada al-Sadr, and this makes it difficult for the new forces to be independent from the sectarian system, and sometimes people are forced to cooperate with militias in order to survive in Iraq.

As for the forces of the Left, there is in fact no way to explain the meaning of “the Left” in Iraq now. I cannot say that the new movements are leftist because they themselves don’t know what that means.

There are only two communist parties in Iraq, the first—the Iraqi Communist Party—is 80 years old and the other—the Worker-Communist Party—is 25 years old, and they have absolutely no influence, their numbers do not exceed five thousand, and they have not yet been part of the Iraqi political struggle.

bb: In this context can you talk about Workers Against Sectarianism? What are your political origins, current activity, and political perspectives?

WAS: We are an Iraqi leftist group that seeks to expose and provide information on sectarianism, and we also seek to dismantle sectarianism in Iraqi society by working within residential neighborhoods. We provide the community with non-sectarian and non-nationalist analysis and answers to the political problems that occur, thus we provide a left-wing feminist progressive political discourse to the residential neighborhoods as an alternative to the sectarian discourse that dominates.

This work would strengthen society and make it independent of the influence of parties. We are also working to protect individuals who have ideas different from the ideas of the national or sectarian system, by providing a safe environment for them to meet, discuss, and form social relationships that are not based on sectarian or racial grounds.We have meetings within the residential neighborhoods in order to discuss and develop our ideas with the community in order to achieve these goals.

As for exposing sectarianism, we have a website and social networking sites, and we speak English in order to inform as many people as possible about this system. One of our most important campaigns is our narrative, which talks about our views on events and history. We have a video campaign called Street Life in which we shed light on the failure of the state and the sectarian system to provide essential services and other activities.

Politically, we believe that Iraq is on the verge of change, but we have to be part of it. This change will go through stages, difficult and unfortunately, perhaps bloody. This change will never happen easily. There are parties that own the religious faith, own militias, external support, and own weapons, and they are not at all ready to exclude themselves from the political process. In return, we are trying to be a force by building networks within Iraqi society and by building relationships with new local parties, organizations, and individuals as well, in order to share political analyzes and warn against being part of the partisan conflict and civil war that is currently taking place.

We are also trying to build networks with parties, organizations and international journalists, Left or progressive, in order to be strengthened in Iraq. But this is difficult. The international Left is weak, and solidarity with Iraq is unfortunately not very strong. Nevertheless, we can do a lot if the new forces are given the opportunity and support.

bb: Can you talk about the impact of both U.S. imperialism and Iranian influence on Iraqi politics?

WAS: This question is very difficult, and any answer will be superficial. In general, American influence in Iraq is essential to form any government. The approval of America must be obtained before one becomes the prime minister of Iraq, otherwise it won’t last a year in power. America has destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and turned Iraq from a producer country to a consumer and rentier country. We sell Iraqi oil to the world and the money goes to the U.S. Federal Bank first and then goes to Iraq. Simply put, Iraq is completely and absolutely under the authority of the U.S. occupation. The idea of ​​the sectarian system and Islamic parties and Islamic militias is America’s design in Iraq, as enshrined in the constitution written and voted on in the presence of Paul Bremer. The Islamic parties were brought to Iraq by Paul Bremer and these parties and their militias were funded by the same person. All Islamic parties know the value and strength of America in Iraq, and so they do not take any step without America’s approval first.

On the other hand, Iran believes that it owns Iraq and Iraqis, and believes that the religious bond that exists between the two countries is what will allow it to implement its dream in the Middle East. Iran dreams of creating an ISIS state with a brutal Shiite sectarian state version in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. In order for Iran to be a great imperialist country, it must first realize this dream. It must obtain nuclear weapons, finance and train the region with militias, support terrorism and Islamic extremism, give weapons, strengthen corruption, etc.

Iraq is Iran’s national security. Iraq is key for Iran’s control of the Middle East and its wealth, and for Iran to become a regional superpower.

Some leftists in the world believe that Iran is the defender of freedom in the Middle East. It is pathetic for them to think that. Iran is a criminal ISIS state that has financed militias and committed countless crimes against innocent civilians, it is an extremist Islamic regime that only cares about its personal interest and its power in the region in order to be part of the global capitalist system.

Iran has nearly a million sectarian criminal soldiers in Iraq under its command. Iran has provided the legal and financial cover for these through the Popular Mobilization Institution, this institution is financed by the Iraqi government but subject to pure Iranian control. No one can stand in the way of Iran, as it plays a part in all social and governmental issues, and it protects the Shiite parties loyal to it in Iraq. Therefore, Iran and America in the end agree on the same goal in Iraq.

During the Obama era, America gave Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, and this led to a lot of corruption, destruction, and violence in Iraq. The matter was different when Trump came to Iraq.

The Iraqis rejoiced at Trump’s coming to power, because they felt that Trump represented a threat to Iran, and that Iran’s role would end in Iraq. We were so desperate. If Iran was interested in Iraq being stable, as it claims, it would have acted differently, but the truth is that Iran only cares about its interests and the perpetuation of this sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict in order to extend its authority in the Middle East and realize a dream of establishing a Shiite sectarian Islamic state.

The Iraqi people wish for freedom, peace and democracy, but where is the political will that seeks to achieve this? There is no international or regional will for this, not even among the local Islamic parties.

Featured Image credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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brian bean View All

brian bean is a socialist organizer and writer based in Chicago, a member of the Tempest Collective, a part of the Rampant Magazine editorial collective, and an editor and contributor to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction from Haymarket Books.