Maliki Runs Out of Days

June 7th has been called ‘The Day of Retribution’ by Iraqi grassroots organizers. Nation-wide protests and sit-ins are planned against the US occupation as well as Nouri al-Maliki’s regime, coinciding with the Prime Minister’s own deadline, set exactly 100 days ago, to address Iraq’s protest movement’s demands. “Changes will be made in light of the evaluation results,” Maliki said in a statement in late February, referring to his cabinet members and their performance.

In response, a recently released call to action by the grassroots organization ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ expresses a broadly held sentiment among Iraqis: the government’s promises are not to be trusted. “We admit that we weren’t really waiting, and didn’t hold out during this time. We were organizing actions with other organizations before and during the countdown to June 7th.” Seeing the date as a marker to draw more dissatisfied Iraqis into the protest movement, the statement continues: “But the end of the 100 day period, [with the government] having achieved nothing whatsoever, was the fuse we were waiting for, for those that were giving al-Maliki a chance, and were waiting for reforms from him, his government and corrupt parliament, to come out and demonstrate with us.”

The actions and demonstrations mentioned above have varied in their size, intensity and intent. Over the past 100 days, Friday demonstrations in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square have been a constant, sometimes swelling to involve thousands of participants whose grievances included the shocking lack of services like reliable electricity after nearly a decade of a new regime. Crucially though, demands have also often included the immediate withdrawal of the US occupation forces, the release of political prisoners, and the revocation of the sectarian constitution. (These facts are often omitted by the little coverage Iraq receives. A May 29th story by the new agency ‘Aswat al-Iraq’ for example, only mentions protestors “demanding an end of corruption, the improvement of public services and living standards of the people, as well as putting an end to unemployment in the country.”)

Mosul - April 25th

These broader-aimed protests were most prominent during a 20-day long sit-in in the northern city of Mosul, launched on April 9th, 8 years to the day after Baghdad fell to occupying forces. Iraqi blogs and facebook pages are attempting to marshal the energy of that sustained action for June 7th, recalling that it grew to the tens of thousands, contained a lively, celebratory air including political poetry and theater performances, and even pushed the governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Najifi, to openly defy Maliki’s forces and defend the right of Iraqis to demonstrate. In response to Maliki’s threats of a clampdown – backed by live ammunition –  nearly the entire city (Iraq’s second largest) went on a general strike on May 25th, and for one of the first times the magic words of the Arab spring were heard in Iraq “The people want the downfall of the regime!”

Another significant development in the Iraqi protest movement is the coordination between groups, as well as the clarity of their demands. Mainly through facebook, a consistent source of photos, videos and statements has become ‘The Media Office of The Great Iraqi Revolution and the February 25th Revolution Coalition.’ This is in addition to their launching of an Arabic-language website on May 19th [www.iraqirevolution.com] that includes exposés of corrupt politicians and profiles of organizers and activists.

Finally, in a joint statement signed by several groups, such as ‘Movement to Liberate the South [of Iraq]’, ‘The Organization of Students of a Free Iraq’, ‘The National Organization of Tribal Leaders of the South and the Central Euphrates’, ‘Movement of Rising Iraqis’, ‘Coalition to Support the Iraqi Revolution’ and ‘Movement of Iraqi Youth’ a positive alternative to Iraq’s present reality begins to emerge: “[We] are not returning to our homes until al-Maliki steps down, the occupation leaves, corrupt politicians are held accountable, face trial, and the parliament is disbanded. We call for the formation of a transitional government of technocrats that can run the country for a temporary period, and after a period of no more than 6 months, they will set up transparent elections without regional or outside interference. [We] and the other organizations in coalition have decided not to enter into this transitional government, and limit our work to organizing sit-ins and demonstrations only, to bring down the occupation government.”

Whose “Regime”?

Observers of the Iraqi protest movement cannot help but notice that its numbers would swell whenever there was a visit by a US diplomat to the green zone. February 25th’s ‘Day of Rage’ followed hints from the US state department that US forces may need to remain, while many slogans in all over Iraq’s public squares were keyed to statements Joe Biden, John Kerry or Robert Gates had recently made. A key development in this regard was Nouri al-Maliki’s shift from denying the possibility of a US troop presence past the 2011 year-end deadline agreed upon in 2008’s ‘Status of Forces Agreement’, to saying on May 10th: “You want to make me say yes or no before I gather the national consensus?” al-Maliki retorted. “I will not say it.”

This combination then — of demands very similar to those of other pro-democracy movements in the Arab-world, political freedoms, transparency and lack of corruption, and due process rather than arbitrary force exercised by the police,  along with a powerful call for self-determination against a US occupation that has lasted longer than 8 years, and a clear Iranian influence on the Maliki-led coalition government —  makes Iraq unique, and makes Maliki’s regime especially glaring in its lack of legitimacy.

The writing reads in the currency reads: "I am Iraqi - June 7th", "6/7 We are waiting for you. Don't be late"

As Uday al-Zaidi, brother of shoe-throwing journalist and lead organizer of the ‘Popular Movement to Save Iraq’ puts it:  “What we want is dignity. If you look, when the protests began in Baghdad, we were not [just] asking for electricity or government subsidies. You hear here and there that these people are just looking for work, or job opportunities. They are wrong. We are a country that has lost its dignity and freedom. That is why our central demand is and will continue to be an end to the occupation, and an end to this political process which is built on a sectarian quota system.”

Perhaps sensing how vulnerable the top of the pyramid is, Iraqi police (and sometimes military) have launched a severe crackdown in the run-up to June 7th, arresting, questioning and sometimes torturing activists and their supporters. The crackdown has been so blatantly repressive, that even international human rights organizations, that have often been very quiet about Iraq, like Amnesty International have released condemnations, and calls for the release of the detained, like prominent blogger Ahmed Alaa al-Baghdadi.

The tactics though, seem to be outrunning the repression, with the method of writing meeting spots and dates on currency (pictured above) for wide dissemination, which was a very effective strategy most recently in Egypt, where, like in Iraq, the vast majority are without access to ‘facebook.’

Extending the metaphor, Uday al-Zaidi adds “This has shown us once and for all that terrorism and the Iraqi government are two sides of the same coin.”

Image from an Iraqi facebook page with over 31,000 "likes" calling for action on April 9th. It reads: "The Great Iraqi Revolution - 4/9 - The Day of National Salvation"

On March 22nd, 5 Iraqi grassroots organizations announced an initiative that will target “the occupier and its agents”, that’s to say: US military bases and Iraq’s Maliki-led government. Riding the recent wave of sizable Iraqi demonstrations against, among other things: government corruption, lack of social services, Iraq’s prison industrial complex and a broken sectarian political system, the sit-ins planned for on April 9th are the first to call out the US occupation as a central cause, and sustainer of the shattered social reality that millions of Iraqis face every day. A new zeal and organizational drive inspired by the recent Arab uprisings has allowed the grievances laid out during the past month of weekly protests to coalesce. Two communiques co-signed by “The Popular Movement to Save Iraq”, “The Popular Front to Save Kirkuk”, “The Student and Youth Organization of a Free Iraq”, “The Movement in Steadfast Basra to Liberate the South” and “The Iraqi Association of the Tribes of Southern and Central Iraq”outline their demands and the means by which they hope to achieve them.

Those demands include:

-          The unconditional departure of the occupying forces

-          The revocation of the security agreement which violates the sovereignty and independence of Iraq

-           The revocation of the sectarian and ethnic quota system in the political process

-           The building of a civil Iraqi state through transparent elections, without the interference of the occupation forces or any foreign, regional force, especially Iran

-          The release of the innocent prisoners from occupation and government prisons

-          The disclosure of the location of secret prisons that are scattered all over Iraq’s provinces

-          Carrying out the demands of our people which were outlined during the “Uprising of Rage” on February 25th

-          The formation of an independent judicial committee to investigate the actions of the security forces against peaceful demonstrators [involved in protests over this last month]

The communique continues by announcing  “the launch of a long-term sit-in in all Iraqi provinces to mark the eighth anniversary of the brutal American occupation of our precious Iraq on Saturday, 4/9/2011 [. . .] This sit-in will not last hours or days, but will continue night and day until the protesters demands are met [ . . . ] For our sit-ins we will set up tents in front of US military bases, which are located in every Iraqi province. We ask all patriotic individuals and forces that oppose the occupation to participate in this demonstration.” (Full text of the communiques 16 and 17, including organizer’s contact information and the sites of the planned sit-ins, can be accessed in English here and here, and their original Arabic here and here.) The U.S. maintains 14 massive military installations in Iraq, along with dozens of smaller ones. With the Bush administration having pushed for 58 permanent bases during the drafting of the “status of forces” agreement, their fate under Obama and the planned post-2011 “withdrawal” remains unclear.

Among those leading this call is Uday al-Zaidi, the brother of journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi, who gained world-wide acclaim for his symbolic shoe-throwing at President Bush in December of 2008, and later his eloquent statement about why he did what he did. (As vocal organizers of the past month of protests, both Muntazer and Uday al-Zaidi have been harassed, assaulted and detained by the Iraqi authorities.)

Large media outlet coverage of this mobilization call has been scant, but has included brief stories on Al-Jazeera Arabic, as well as local Iraqi media. The Iraqi blogosphere though, has been abuzz with talk of this plan, as well as more broadly how to marshal the audacity in the air and mobilize for a new Iraq.

Location of major US miltary bases in Iraq (last updated 2008)

 

'Friday of the Imprisoned - March 18'

This past Friday the 18th, was dubbed ‘Friday of the Imprisoned’ by various Iraqi facebook pages, which led to several thousands of protesters marching in Baghdad, Ramadi, Falluja, and other cities. This was amidst extreme state security measures, check points (centered especially around the Green Zone) and the use of sound bombs, tear gas, and sometimes live ammunition to break up the demonstrations. The call for a focus on prisons came partially in response to a prison riot that took place in Tikrit on March 13th. Also though, many of the protest organizers from the past several Fridays (the day demos have been held regularly since February 18th) have been locked up, in addition to the fact that Iraq has had a soaring prison population since 2007. Chants heard during marches were ‘Free Government Prisoners!’ and also included ‘Improve Social Services!’ and even ‘Bring down Maliki’s Government!’ and ‘Leave, Leave Occupier!’ Click here for video (audio in Arabic.)

“Blue is our symbol . . . the sky our color . . . freedom and hope our demands . . .” is how Iraqi cultural activist, Ahmad Hatif, begins his brief manifesto “A Blue Revolution for Change is Launched in Iraq.” Launching with it a network and discussion platform on facebook, which has been generating scads of commentary and reactions from Iraqi writers and bloggers across the board. Hatif’s call first appeared on December 16th on the website “Free Directions” (read it in Arabic here, and here in English translation) and then shortly thereafter showed up on one of the most popular and active repositories for independent Iraqi cultural and political writings: kitabat.com. Its posting immediately garnered enthusiastic (and often poetic) statements of support, analysis, and critical questioning (read them in Arabic here, here, and here.)

But what exactly is the “Iraqi Blue Revolution”? While at present still very much a budding and evolving project, seemingly limited to its 1,800 internet-enabled, though Iraq-based “members”, almost all participants express their desire “to declare their protest and refusal, and to announce the start of a popular revolution against corruption and politicians, and against the occupation and the occupiers” in the words of Hatif’s call.

Many involved have also explicitly stated their wish to avoid and offer an alternative to the manipulative, divisive, and often murderous politics of today’s Iraq. This mobilization, to again quote Hatif, will “declare a popular revolt, which is not supported by any official institution, or funded by any internal or external party, but rather is a kind of popular agitation . . . and an attempt to unify Iraqi cadres that have been torn apart, calling for a new Iraq . . .” And later: “[We] reject all attempts by politicians, and ‘allied’ states and ‘non-allied’ states, neighbors and ones distant, Arab or non-Arab to interfere with our internal affairs. We also reject the reelection of corrupt politicians without exception: from the Council of Ministers to the Presidency Council, to the ruling Iraqi parties and non-ruling parties, and consider all of these people and groups to be illegal. Not just because they lack any legal authorization, but also because they’ve proved in practice that they only serve their friends and political rivals.” This language demonstrates that these are more than just calls for reform, but are gropings towards some kind of fundamental or structural change.

What distinguishes these calls for unity from the hundreds made by political players over the years since the Iraq was invaded in 2003, are their notions of self-reliance and empowerment: “ . . .that you join hands together and reject ‘partyization’ of any kind, cast off fear and hesitation and don’t listen to those that only want to consolidate their interests, from the supporters of Saddam’s regime to the supporters of corruption and occupation . . .”

One supporter, Shakir al-Nasiry, writing on the 18th of December, notes that the selection of “blue” as a symbol comes in reaction to “the colors of the politician’s banners, which have now lost all credibility, and symbolize a narrow nationalism, sectarianism and racism . . .” seeing the form of this call as offering a new way of envisioning politics and social change, and injunctions to “wear blue” as a reengagement with the Iraqi public. al-Nasriy also describes the rhetoric of the contributors as a refreshing reminder of what may be possible, “that the logic of revolution, even if only dreamt, remains, and [still] has the power to attract [ . . . ] despite the fact that the most powerful institutions and media outlets work hard to erase the idea of revolution, and the logic of change from the global political dictionary, treating them as a passing memory in the imaginations of dreamers.”

Finally, al-Nasiry comments that “revolutions are easily launched in a hypothetical world . . . [where] they are dominated by hopes and dreams. In the case of the blue revolution, we must ask about the seriousness of those who began this ambitious project [ . . . ] about their future plans, their views on society [ . . . ] Of what horizon do they dream? [ . . . ] The true challenge is to take this revolution from a hypothetical world where there is no blood or exploding cars [ . . . ] to the world of lived reality . . .”

Thinking along similar lines, the group took a turn for the more concrete on January 2nd after the first “coordination meeting” was held on facebook, which included the comments and questions from about 80 of the about 1,800 members. The meeting produced a demand for “justice for blackwater victims” and an “appeals process” against the private mercenary army, in reaction to the January 1st decision of a US federal court judge to dismiss the charges against 5 blackwater employees who by several eye witness accounts, and their own testimony, are almost certainly responsible for the killing of 14 and wounding of 20 unarmed Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked, September 2007 attack.

Tame statements by Iraqi spokeman Ali al-Dabbagh that former Blackwater employees are not welcome in Iraq (even if they work for other companies) and more recent statements by Nuri al-Maliki that other methods of bringing these men to justice will be found, have not satisfied the Iraqi Blue Revolution, which wrote in a recent post:

“Let’s protest the spilled blood . . . and demand the justice the US courts hid, in the absence of an Iraqi demand and a real Iraqi voice, or of Iraqi judges . . . Let’s push our government and the victims to go to other courts . . . don’t depend on the politicians or the Ministry of Councils . . . because Blackwater was the instrument that each used to wipe out the other’s opponents. Blackwater was the expert killer in Iraq, and participated in dozens and dozens of night raids . . . charging very high prices. They have very dangerous documents . . . that can silence all opposition, except us, the people. Let’s build a blue wall, and write our protests on it . . .”

After a 53-day strike (the longest in Iraq since 1931) won workers in the leather industry the release of long promised safety benefits and back wages, FWCUI-affiliated unions are at it again, this time organizing Baghdad cotton factory workers and announcing a strike for similar demands, now entering its 19th day. There is yet a another strike, this one in the industrial area of Nahrawan (east of Baghdad) at al-Thalal brick factory. This strike began on the 23rd of December. If these actions are any indication, organizing in the industrial sector is really catching fire in Iraq. In the face of such effective and uncompromising direct action, the Iraqi authorities –surprise, surprise—have stepped up their attempts to interfere, by “relocating” organizers to out of the way offices, or simply firing them. The most threatening of these attempts though, takes the form of planned union federation elections, which the FWCUI considers to be a sham meant only to confer legitimacy on the state-backed federation. This then may lead to the very Ba’athi move of banning of all ‘unrecognized’ unions.

The Baghdad based  Federation of Worker’s Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) has called for an expansion of the now 41 day-old leather industries strike, into other industries and sectors across Iraq. In their call (which you can read in the original Arabic here, and in English translation here) they cite numerous wage and condition-related grievances, but also emphasize what Iraqi labor unions have for decades been struggling against:  a 1987 law, enforced to this day, which prohibits worker organizing in the public sector, in addition to various economic initiatives which they see as threatening the public sector’s very existence. The FWCUI’s analysis also has a broader reach, and considers these moves an expression of the desire on the part of the Iraqi Government, multi-nationals, and the US-led occupation, to privatize nearly all Iraqi industry.

In this short interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!,  Iraqi labor union organizers Rasim Awadi and Falah Alwan discuss present conditions in Iraq, and what to look for in the future [taped September 21st, 2009.]

 

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