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(en) The Northeastern Anarchist #11 - A People's History of Iraq - book review

Date Mon, 21 Aug 2006 07:30:25 +0300

This slim volume focuses almost exclusively on the activities of the
Iraq Communist Party (ICP) and is a powerful antidote to the
patronizing orientalism many leftists and anti-war activists have
towards Iraq. Through the lens of the ICP, Salucci shatters the
illusion that Iraq is a backward, undeveloped society dominated
exclusively by a reactionary political Islam without any substantial
leftist history. Revealed is a society that grows from a
British-installed monarchy with an agrarian economy, through a
period of communist resistance to the monarchy and colonial
exploitation that was interwoven with tribal and peasant uprisings, to
the labor struggles of an emerging industrial proletariat centered on
the oil industry. Salucci illuminates this with a very useful
chronology of events, many statistics regarding land distribution,
domestic production, and occupational employment, and a historical
narrative of the many strikes and uprisings during the twentieth
century. Even with these other details, the text will not serve well as
a general history of Iraq, as it is focused almost exclusively on the
politics and fluctuations of the ICP. This is both a strength and a
weakness of the book.

The ICP has generally argued that it needed to support a bourgeois
revolution against the monarchy and feudal interests in Iraq, that
would then set up a bourgeois government which would develop Iraq
on an industrial basis. The problem with this strategy* is that the
bourgeoisie as a class in Iraq has always been weak and small, tied
first to the interests of land-owning sheikhs. It was never able to
seize the state or industrially develop Iraq.

Instead, the military took power and developed Iraq, creating a
middle class dependent completely on the growing state apparatus
for their position. It was the military officers and state bureaucrats
that the Ba'ath party made its base of support. While the ICP
claimed to be organizing in the interests of the working class and
peasants in Iraq, it continually sidelined the demands of the
oppressed classes to support the weak interests of the bourgeoisie.

The Iraqi Communist Party continued to engage in actions that
seem short-sighted, opportunistic, and counter-revolutionary, as
they on one hand tried to make some accommodation with the
existing state and military (when the state and military would
tolerate them), and on the other hand advanced the interests of the
petite-bourgeoisie (even when that class was incapable of advancing
its own interest). Such logic led the ICP to oppose land reform in the
1950s. Further, arguing that Iraq should develop into its own
bourgeois republic, the party opposed the Nasserite and Ba'athist
pan-Arab socialist position of uniting with Syria and Egypt. Even
after decades of repression by the Ba'ath party and Saddam Hussein,
including periods during which it engaged in armed struggle against
the state, the ICP continued to try to make itself available to the
regime. In one of its greatest misjudgments, it chose not to oppose
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, and had little presence in the
uprising following the Iraqi army's withdrawal.

At various times, elements of the ICP have rejected its dominant
ideology of supporting the bourgeoisie, instead forming various splits
influenced by Maoism, Guevarism, and the ultra-left. The
book’s inclusion of a speech by Qasim Hasan (Nazim) to the
Comintern in 1935 alongside a 2003 statement by the Central
Committee of the ICP shows how far the ICP has drifted in its
revolutionary commitments. This drift has included opportunistically
joining the U.S.-propped-up governing council, a collaborationist
gambit which has not led to any sort of gains for the ICP in the most
recent elections.

Salucci also more sympathetically describes the Workers
Communist Party of Iraq (WCPI) which has always rejected the U.S.
occupation, and primarily focuses on social mobilization, mass
protest and organizing among the Federation of Workers' Councils
and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI), the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq
(UUI), and the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI)
as a way of building towards revolution. The WCPI has rejected both
the collaborationist route of the ICP and the armed struggle being
waged by "Islamic fascism".

"The Shoras Will Heal the Wounds of Kurdistan's Exploited!"
- slogan from the 1991 uprising

With the exception of a passing paragraph reference to the shora
uprisings in 1991 and inclusion of a "Statement of the Sulaimaniya
Shora," there is little in Salucci's book about one of the most recent
significant events in Iraq's left history. With the defeat of the Iraqi
army in Kuwait, troops deserted and mutinied as they returned to
southern Iraq. Simultaneously in the north, workers’ councils
(shoras) were setup in Sulaimaniya, Hawlir, Kirkuk, Rania and
Nasro Bareeka.

Considering the involvement of the "March of Communism" Group,
Communist Perspective, and other groups to the left of the ICP, and
considering the role the shora uprising had in popular consciousness
and the regroupment of the extreme left in Iraq into the WCPI, it
seems odd that Salucci did not devote more discussion to this
uprising, its suppression, and its effects on the Iraqi working class.
For example, Jalal Talibani, as leader of the PUK (supported by the
U.K.), and Masud Barzani, as leader of the KDP (supported by the
U.S.A.), played substantial roles in the cooptation and suppression of
the shora uprising. With the recent elections at the end of 2005,
Barzani and Talibani have worked out that Talibani will continue to
be president of Iraq.

For more information about the Shoras in 1991, readers may want to
review "The Kurdish Uprising..." pamphlet, as well as "10 Days that
Shook Iraq" by Wildcat UK.

Are There Any Women in Iraq? Or Are They Just Not People?

Given the lack of discussion in this book, it would not appear that
women exist in Iraq. Women’s organizations in Iraq are at least
as old as the ICP: in 1924 the Women's Empowerment Society
(Jameat al Nahda al-Nisaeya) was formed, followed by the Kurdish
Women's Foundation in 1928. Considering Salucci's focus on the
ICP, it is strange that he did not even mention the foundation of the
ICP-supported League for the Defense of Women's Rights in the
early 1950s. The League reached a membership of 40,000 between
1958 and 1963, and published a weekly periodical titled "14 July."

In 1968, the Ba'ath party banned other political parties and
independent civil-society organizations, including women’s
groups. Certain rights were codified by the government, including
divorce and child custody. Still, the state decreed that except where
spelled out by state law, the sharia would still be followed. The
Ba'ath formed the General Federation of Iraqi Women in 1969. The
GFIW, through its control of 250 rural and urban communities,
offered job training, education, and other social programs to women.
The GFIW was also the only legal channel through which women
could lobby for* reforms in regard to their status under the law and
personal status code. By 1997, 47% of all Iraqi women were
members of the GFIW. Many women still criticized the GFIW as a
propaganda arm of the state.

Advances in women's rights continued under the Ba'ath regime into
the 1980s, with women gaining the right to stand for election in
parliament and local government. Education became mandatory for
girls, and literacy programs became available for adults—by 1987,
75% of Iraqi women were literate. Women could join the large civil
service workforce, where laws were established for equal pay for
equal work, maternity benefits, and freedom from harassment.

During the Iraq-Iran war, the participation of women in the civil
service workforce soared to 70%. Yet, the government also banned
contraception. With the end of the Iraq-Iran war and the failure to
hold Kuwait with the Gulf War, women were displaced from
employment by the demobilization of male Iraqi soldiers. Saddam
Hussein's adoption of Islamization further eroded gains made by
women. In 1990, men were exempted from prosecution for "honor
killings". Hussein's "Campaign for Faithfulness", supposedly against
prostitution, was used to behead political opponents and doctors.

By 1998, all women working as secretaries for government agencies
were dismissed; by 2000, restrictions were placed on women
working outside the home; travel abroad by women became
restricted, co-ed education was eliminated, and the female literacy
dropped to 25%. In the nominally independent Kurdish area to the
north, where the ICP and WCPI could operate openly, there was still
a deterioration of women's rights, with increasing honor killings and
women being driven out of workplaces and universities.

Women also suffered greatly from increasing mortality and
malnutrition under the difficulties resulting from the U.S.-supported
economic sanctions against Iraq. The U.S. Occupation policy of
de-Ba'athification abolished the GFIW. Iraq under U.S. occupation
does not appear sympathetic to feminism, as the CPA and the new
government seem quite willing to continue the oppression of women
to gain support from Islamist political parties. With the end of the
GFIW, however, civil society has begun to regenerate—an
attempt by the government to introduce the Sharia was met by
demonstrations called by 25 women's organizations.

Considering the degree of organization of women in Iraq, the gains
in equality made and lost, the massive involvement and then
removal of women in the workforce, and the involvement of the left
in women's struggles, Salucci's avoidance of women and feminism
is a glaring fault with this book.

Even though this short book does not sufficiently address the politics
of the Ba'ath, pan-Arab socialism, the left wing of Kurdish
nationalism, the shoras, or feminism, it is still a very useful reference
and introduction to a history of the left in Iraq, and is highly
recommended for those who would like a brief introduction. With no
sign of an end to the occupation by the U.S. in sight, developments
in Iraq will continue to dominate our attention.
Haymarket Books, 208 pgs. April 2005 reviewed
by: Stephen "Flint" Arthur (Baltimore NEFAC)
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