Evidence for the story is so scarce to a Western reader that it seems mythical. As the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr advanced through the city of Nasiriyah, they came upon an aluminum plant. Commanders of the Mahdi Army ordered the workers to evacuate. The workers refused.
“Workers of Aluminum Company and the employees of health sector refuse to evacuate their workplaces and turn them into battlefields,” declared a terse release signed by the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI). “They insisted on remaining inside their factories in order to defend them.”
Something here can be generalized, and “workers would endeavor to generalize,” promises the FWCUI, “in all areas facing military confrontation between US troops and armed militias, despite all pretexts and motivations.”
“The civilians,” says the FWCUI, “will make sure to block the armed militias from turning the peaceful residential areas into centers for attacking the US, British, and other forces, and also to prevent the occupying forces from remaining inside the cities and residential areas.”
Journalists in Iraq should tell us more about these civilians who refuse to make room for war, who refuse to trade jobs for war, and who apparently place obstacles, literally, in the way of war. “Not in my backyard,” is a worthy headline for so many other issues. Why not war?
Spontaneous action of the aluminum workers could hardly be attributed to love of American occupation. The civilian population of Nasiriyah had been under fire for a year. Press reports from the Spring of 2003 speak of a city along the Euphrates River with two strategic bridges. The road from Kuwait to Baghdad ran over both those bridges. Civilians in the strategic city faced death whether they tried to stay home, flee, or return.
“In Nasiriyah,” reported the Scotsman of March 31, 2003, “Bodies of men, women and children, including two babies, lay in a ditch next to the wreckage of burnt-out vehicles on a bridge being held by coalition forces.”
On June 6, 2003, the Iraq Body Count database documents the killing of a 52-year-old prisoner at Camp White Horse, near Nasiriyah. Says the website: “US Marines said to have ‘snapped a bone in his throat,’ and ‘karate-kick[ed] Hatab in chest.'” Two Marines face courts martial in that death. On Sept. 13, a demonstrator was shot to death.
Shortly after Jessica Lynch’s convoy got lost in the area, The Washington Post described Nasiriyah as a “Turkey Shoot” on US soldiers. “Iraqis mounting the attacks appear to be a mix of Saddam’s Fedayeen, a paramilitary group loyal to President Saddam Hussein, and regular army soldiers,” wrote Post reporter Peter Baker. “Marine officers said they have found bodies of regular Iraqi army soldiers with gunshots to the head, an indication, they believe, that the Fedayeen or Republican Guard commanders have been forcing soldiers to fight and killing those who do not.”
Republican Guards reportedly stayed around long enough to instigate fights between Marines and local civilians, then were quick to retreat once the fighting started. In early April, US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks claimed that civilians around Nasiriyah, “are now helping U.S. special forces find troops loyal to Saddam.”
So the occupation has been devastating to the civilians of Nasiriyah, but so has the resistance. In November, 2003, says Iraq Body Count, children were among the victims killed in a car bomb outside the headquarters of the Italian military police headquarters. And in March of 2004, four police were killed, “rescuing civilians held by militia.” Deaths in Nasiriyah, it seems, have come from at least three sides.
In late February, 2004, when an armory in Nasiriyah was apparently broken into, it exploded, killing perhaps 60 people, according to the Iraq Resistance Report.
With this on-the-ground, in-the-ditch experience of death, it is understandable why the FWCUI declares: “We completely reject the turning of workers’ and civilians’ work and living places into reactionary war-fronts between the two poles of terrorism in Iraq; the US and their allies from one side, and the terrorists in the armed militias, well known for their enmity to Iraqi people’s interests, from the other.”
Whatever hope that anti-occupation, anti-imperialist partisans may project onto news reports about armed resistance in Iraq, there are people in Nasiriyah who reportedly see only more war and death. Concludes the FWCUI statement on Nasiriyah: “We will confront the attempts of these militias aiming at disturbing the security and stability of the population, and curtail their attempts to push society into civil war and further destruction and pain.”
Yet, as I scroll through the links, searching for more news of these remarkable events, I wonder, who will further acquaint us with these workers of Nasiriyah? Will we ever see more than the brief declarations of the FWCUI?
The most obvious account for why the Western press ignores the reported “refusal” of Nasiriyah workers might arise from the fact that the FWCUI is openly affiliated with the Worker Communist Party of Iraq (not to be confused with the Iraq Communist Party). But there may be a deeper difficulty than Western anti-communism. How do you take time out of roiling war coverage to explain the story of workers who appear to be taking neither side? How do you stop the locomotion of endless opposites that structure the conflicts of our evening news?
As the obscure workers of Nasiriyah confirm for the world, there is no room for reporting peace once the war drums begin to beat. Peace news is simply too unreal for the realists of war. Refusals to cooperate with war raise too many questions, provide too few images, and risk audience interest. Coverage of al-Sadr, like coverage of the “embedded” coalition, works better.
Shamal Ali, who writes for the Workers Communist Party of Iraq, argues that al-Sadr is connected to a pan-Arabic, political Islamic movement that is not much different from bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. He warns that critics of the US invasion may have found in al-Sadr’s resistance something to celebrate, because al-Sadr is simply opposed to the invasion, too. But what al-Sadr represents to the Iraqi people, argues Ali, may be a cure worse than the disease.
In a plain-speaking essay of May 22, Ali argues that, “the hidden core of the shrinking anti-war movement,” may be linked to a Western failure to appreciate the genius of peaceful alternatives posed by the workers of Nasiriyah. “Very few in the world are as stupid as the traditional Left,” argues Ali, “so they encourage and support one terrorist against the other in a conflict like this.”
Quoting from a letter that he recently received from a correspondent in Nasiriyah, “Amidst the recent fighting, the Mahdi army looted the museum, which was full of antiquities. Their justification was even worse than their deed. They say antiquities are earthy treasures, which belong to Mahdi and his army. Some of the stolen artifacts were found the following day in the city bazaar.”
For Ali, the reported museum raid, justification, and trafficking, “are trivial incidents in comparison to what ordinary people in Iraq undergo amid the domination of these gangs and their impact on the destiny of Iraqi society and due to the escalation of terrorist conflict between occupation forces, the Mahdi Army, and other militias.”
“The crimes carried out by these gangs start from launching campaigns against unveiled women, bombing liquor shops and cinemas, calling on their followers to kill communists, seculars or simply anyone who opposes their dominance. The criminal activities of al-Sadr’s gangs are becoming more diverse and have started from the very first day the US troops entered Iraq.”
On the other hand, another kind of resistance has also been in the making. Clearly it is an anti-occupation, anti-imperialist resistance, but it is a resistance that, like the workers of Nasiriyah, would subordinate the demands of armed struggle to the demands of militant labor. And it is a resistance that, once again, flies a banner of Worker Communism.
The Union of Unemployed Iraqis (UUI), for example, sounds from a distance like a bold experiment in organized resistance of a militant kind. The demands of the UUI call for livable wages, either with jobs or without. The demands of the UUI, in fact, sound very much like the ones made by the poor people’s campaign of 1968, the campaign that Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing when he was assassinated in Memphis trying to help garbage workers.
The Iraqi Resistance Report of Jan. 15-17, 2004, says that, “300 unemployed people, most of them former soldiers, rallied peacefully to call for jobs outside the headquarters of the occupation forces,” in an-Nasiriyah. “A representative of the demonstrators read a declaration in which he demanded that government employees be allowed back to their jobs, that promised stipends be paid to veterans, and that jobs be provided for all Iraqis.”
“In recent days similar demonstrations of the unemployed in the other southern Iraqi cities of al-‘Amarah and al-Kut have ended in violent clashes and the deaths of several demonstrators from occupation troop and puppet police gunfire.”
On May 14, 2004, the Mahdi Militia ordered Nasiriyah closed to occupation troops. The militia also ordered all civilians to leave the town, so that the militia might, “deploy there more effectively.” US, Italian, Korean, and Portugese soldiers are still there, some of them working on reconstruction projects. But political pressures mount in their homelands for withdrawal.
Worker Communists of Iraq articulate an interesting position when they argue that sovereignty can be many things, and US withdrawal may not be the only thing worth fighting for. Argues Ali, “the US and allied forces withdrawal probably will mean turning Iraq to another Somalia.” Something besides armed resistance will be needed if everyone is not to wind up carrying guns.
It is risky business to puzzle out the clues of militant resistance from internet reports. Ali concludes his May 22 essay with a direct appeal for support of the Worker Communists in Iraq, including the strengthening of “armed capabilities.” Unfortunately, in an essay filled with warnings against the escalation of “armed conflict”, Ali’s closing appeal for armaments raises questions that he does not answer.
Still, I would like to know more about the workers of Nasiriyah and any other attempts to organize something besides more warfare in Iraq, whether sponsored by Worker Communists or not. If that means asking the Western media to overcome their anti-communist or anti-pacifist biases, then please lay my request high atop the body count. Stop giving gunslingers all the headlines.