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Listening to Iraq

Iraq is not dead, not a wasteland, not a mere stage for invasion, occupation, or geopolitical battle.

Iraq is a place, with people living there, some of whom are engaged in courageous and sustained progressive organizing. Amid the rise of ISIS–and alongside western and regional intervention–feminist, environmental, and worker organizers are fighting for a more hopeful future. They deserve international understanding and backing, not pity and erasure.

This thesis, argued forcefully in Ali Issa’s new book Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, should be obvious. But in fact it is revolutionary, at least for people like me, who came up in the U.S. anti-war movement in 2003 and continue to be inundated with media and political images of Iraq as solely a target of death and destruction–and its people hapless victims.

The thesis presented by Issa, who is an organizer with the War Resisters’ League, is revolutionary because dignity, humanization, and self-determination are the antidotes to militarism and occupation, and the uplifting of Iraqi voices and stories of resistance shines a light towards a better world.

Focusing on post-2003 grassroots organizing, Issa traces the country’s riveting, yet often overlooked, protest movements through stories and interviews with the people doing the work.

People like Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), who in the midst of her own country’s “forgotten” Arab Spring took the time to write a letter of solidarity to Occupy Wall Street in November 2011 when she declared that “it is time to break into the castles and palaces of the one percent, and claim what is rightfully yours, to start a new era based on global peace, equal division of wealth, and humanity.”

Iraq at the time was witnessing the rebirth of mass mobilizations that had been brutally repressed since 2003. Organizations including the Popular Movement to Save Iraq and the Student and Youth Organization of a Free Iraq staged sit-ins at US military bases and protests spread to Mosul, Ramadi, and Baghdad despite severe government violence. Demands included calls for basic social services; an end to the U.S. occupation and the sectarian system of government it imposed; the release of political prisoners; and economic sovereignty and workers’ rights.

When the U.S. made its much-vaunted “exit” from Iraq in 2011, however incomplete, over a dozen grassroots organizations staged “Friday of Occupation’s Defeat” protests calling for “the departure of every last soldier” and a “new front to resist the second face of the occupation represented by its sectarian government and divisive constitution.”

This call for a new front would be prescient.

Another wave of protests started in 2012, lasting into 2013 despite brutal government repression. Demonstrators demanded the release of political prisoners, particularly women, and an end to arbitrary executions. “From the first days, slogans were demanding unity and a rejection of sectarianism and division,” said Falah Alwan, president of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, in a January 2013 interview.

Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi is the president of Iraq’s Electrical Utility Workers Union in Iraq and the first female vice president of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers in Basra. In May 2012 she described complex struggles to combat the “seeds of sectarianism” planted by the U.S. occupation while also defending workers’ rights to organize (despite severe anti-union laws carried over from the era of Saddam Hussein) and defend vital services like social security and electricity.

Issa traces the threads of civil society struggles, including the efforts of people like Baghdad-based Nadia al-Baghdadi, working to save the Tigris and Marshes from a plan by the Turkish government to build the Ilisu Dam. This effort was part of a larger push to hold Iraq’s first soil forum in September 2013 under the banner “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.”

Perhaps the most riveting testimony of the book is by Jannat Alghezzi, OWFI’s media director, who first got in touch with the liberatory feminist organization when she sought shelter from her family’s threats of honor killing. Now she organizes at the intersections of gender and economic justice, opening safe houses for families fleeing ISIS.

“Our movement is small, and our influence–I cannot say that it is large. But at the same time, the impact we do make is like a ray of light,” she said in September 2014. “My daughter, or perhaps my granddaughter, might gain from what I am doing today. Despite everything, we are optimistic.”

The concept that these struggles matter is a political challenge, not only to power holders in the U.S., Iraq, and beyond, but also to components of the anti-war left in the west. Many of us seeking to be in solidarity with Iraqis have not connected with their specific social movements on the ground or found ways to be relevant to their day-to-day lives. Many of us emphasize the role of the U.S. as war architect and political puppeteer without also highlighting Iraqi struggles for agency, or even the roles of other regional countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia that are vying for power.

Issa does not shy away from challenging the left, including trusted writers like Patrick Cockburn, who wrote articles in 2006 and 2013 about the “end of Iraq.” The effect of this proclamation, says Issa, “is that people actually living in Iraq–their communities, dreams, and victories, big and small–are again and again made invisible.

Issa Asks: “How can we understand politics, economics, culture, or society anywhere without the main protagonists, people?”

This book offers a gift by pointing readers towards these protagonists. Look them up. They have names, websites, and political demands and analyses.

Right now, in the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave, protests are sweeping Iraq as people from Basra to Baghdad demand basic goods like water and electricity, as well as an end to government corruption. Groups like OWFI are working to provide safe places from ISIS, while at the same time fending off repression from the Iraqi government. Hidden from the media spotlight, and often with little support, the struggle continues.

Let’s learn. And listen.

More articles by:

Sarah Lazare is an independent journalist and anti-war organizer.

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