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The Left in Iraq

Rounding Out Iraq’s History

by RON JACOBS

I just read a news report from Ramadi, Iraq that detailed an armed takeover of a hospital there by US forces. It seems that there was an explosion in the town and the soldiers invaded the hospital, interrupting medical care, including a caesarian section, and holding some of the staff at gunpoint. As most anybody who follows the occupation of Iraq knows, Ramadi is a stronghold of rebel resistance. Meanwhile, I’m reading a new history of Iraq recently published by Haymarket Books that describes the history of the workers and popular anti imperialist movements in Iraq, especially that of the Iraqi Communist Party. The sad story of that party’s collaboration with its enemies can only lead me to wonder how the Iraq situation might have been quite different if the communist movement’s history had also been different.

The People’s History of Iraq: The Iraqi Communist Party, Workers’ Movements, and the Left 1924-2004, by Ilario Salucci, is a brief introduction to the ups and downs of leftist popular movements in Iraq since the end of the First World War. Because of the dominant role it plays in this history, much of the book concerns itself with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). Salucci provides a general overview of this party and its various splits and policy decisions. Like that of many other communist parties, it is a tale of divisions and realignments, some which are dependent on the world communist movement and some that aren’t. Unlike many other communist parties, the story Salucci unveils in these pages is the story of a party that seems to misunderstand the will of its potential base not once or twice, but constantly. The Iraqi Communist Party is a party whose history is one of repeated growth followed by state repression, than by factionalization and then, open collaboration with the same state that repressed it.

To its credit, the party and the other leftist groupings in Iraq have been a consistent voice for the rights of women. In addition, the Iraqi Left’s understanding of the role British and US imperialism played in Iraq’s development was fundamental to their analysis until the current occupation of their country. This understanding enabled the Party to gain a hearing and, at times, a substantial amount of support among the Iraqi population. Unfortunately for all concerned, the Party today is but an appendage to the US occupation. What this means in real terms is that the ICP sees the US-installed regime as the source of power in Iraq, not the people who live and work there. This analysis has made them enemies of many Iraqis both in and out of the resistance. However, according to Salluci’s history, this approach is standard operating procedure for the ICP. Given that, it is no wonder that the ICP has never enjoyed overwhelming support.

Even during the years immediately following the 1958 July Revolution, when the Free Officers’ movement overthrew the British-installed monarchy and began progressive land reforms and other socialist-oriented programs, the ICP failed to consider the workers and peasants their base and ultimately sealed their fate by not organizing these elements of Iraqi society. Instead, they took a more timid path and refused to demand changes that might offend the nationalist bourgeoisie-the same bourgeoisie that was consolidating its power at the expense of the workers and peasantry. This insight is but one aspect of this revolution provided by Salucci. The discussion of this period in Iraq’s history is quite valuable since very little is understood about it in the West. Furthermore, most of what has been available in the West has not been favorable to the Free Officers and their allies.

The tales of bloody repression and internal revolts told throughout this history prove that Iraq does indeed have a bloody history, but that the bloodiness stems from the nation’s colonial legacy, not from the so-called Arab mind, or any other Orientalist fantasy. This is one of the text’s most valuable contributions to the Left’s understanding of Iraqi history. For the reader not of a leftist persuasion, the facts presented here are important not only in their presentation, but also in their presentation from a viewpoint that is neither Washington’s view or Baghdad’s (although today that distinction is much less than at most other periods in Iraq’s history.) Besides the actual text, there are several appendices, including speeches and a very valuable timeline of Iraq’s history from a left perspective.

In terms of recent history, the descriptions of the 1991 popular rebellions after Hussein’s defeat by the US military are quite interesting and informative. Salluci reveals not only the breadth of this uprising, but also Washington’s complicity in repressing it. Once again, one is left wondering what might have happened if this uprising had been allowed to take its course. Instead, the Iraqis are left with a tattered country under a brutal occupation and a resistance quite susceptible to influences that do not necessarily have what’s best for the Iraqi people in mind.

After reading A People’s History of Iraq, I was reminded once again of the mistakes inherent in a political analysis that does not stem organically from the people, but comes instead from an ideology that while generally appropriate, lacks local flexibility. Meanwhile, the Iraqis live with the consequences. This text is not only important to understanding Iraq’s past and present; it is also useful in understanding what might be useful to its (and ours) future.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu