Contextual Content

Class and religion in Iraq

In the fourth and final part of our interview with Sabah al-Nasseri, Sabah explains that political divisions in Iraq are much more complex than the Sunni-Shiite division that the media espouses. Sabah argues that the US believed it could rally Iraq’s Shiite majority around Nouri al-Maliki, but poor and working class Shiites have turned to other movements, including that of Muqtada al-Sadr. Sabah points out that since 2003, the first independent trade union has been created in Basra, the General Union of Oil Employees, which now has considerable influence. For Sabah this is one indication of the presence of a strong secular left movement in the country, which opposes oil privatization, occupation and any further agreement with the US government. Furthermore, while the US has expressed fears in the past of allowing Iran to exert its influence in Iraq, Sabah believes that the majority of Iraqis, both secular and religious, are devout nationalists who would be as opposed to Iranian influence over their affairs as they currently are to US influence.

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Class and religion in Iraq

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next segment of our interview with Sabah al-Nasseri, professor of political science, York University in Toronto, and an expert on Middle East politics. Welcome, Sabah. So in previous interviews you’ve described the situation in Iraq essentially as competing sections of the Iraqi elite, with tribal base, ethnic base, but essentially sections of the elite fighting for this massive oil wealth and political power, and that the US has picked, essentially, their horse, represented by Maliki, which represents one section of the elite. Its militia gets to be called the Iraqi army. But who are the other forces? And what do they want? If I’m understanding it correctly, what they want is the Americans to get out of the way and let the Iraqis decide and fight amongst themselves, to some extent, about who’s going to be in power in Iraq.

SABAH AL-NASSERI, PROF., POLITICAL SCIENCE, YORK UNIVERSITY: Exactly. If you look at the—let’s take the so-called Shiite community [inaudible] Shiite community. The al-Maliki and Hakim government thought that being Shiite or Shiite political parties, they can represent the majority of the Shiite communities in Iraq, but they realized this is only illusion, it’s not true, because the majority of the Shiites are—you know, some of them are secularist, liberal, whatever, and a lot of them, especially the poor of them, the unemployed, the working class, and so on [inaudible] were backing up al-Sadr movement, which is also Shiite from the ruling elite. But he had always got a connection [inaudible] in Iraq. In this sense, you have internal struggles between these Shiite allies of the ruling class over political power and economic power. So they are really threatened by al-Sadr movement, but also about al-Fadhila Party, which govern in Basra, one of the biggest oil fields in Iraq, that there’s internal struggle between these movement and parties and the government. Now, al-Sistani and Iran were trying to mediate between all these parties by saying, "Look, you are all Shiite. You have to find a compromise for the sake of Iraq, for the national security of Iraq, and for the sake of the bigger Shiite communities." So you have, actually, internal struggle over power, political power, and economic interests within them. And this other, third part of this bloc is the Kurds—Talabani and Barzani parties. This is basically the governing class. But outside this governing class, you have different movement/organization forces—secular, nationalist, leftist, and so on—against the occupation, against this kind of agreement, and against having military bases in Iraq, and against the United States being part of this political struggle [inaudible]

JAY: And what kind of strength do these extra-parliamentary forces, many of them who go back to the days when the left wing movement, the communist movement was more powerful in Iraq, which is not that many years ago—. I guess, do they have any political strength? And that, as we said in the last segment, also goes to: do they have any guns? ‘Cause in Iraq, even if it’s being discussed in Parliament, everyone knows how many guns are backing up the parliamentary member.

AL-NASSERI: Exactly. Exactly. Yes, I would say you have a new development in Iraq since 2003, over which you don’t have any media coverage, actually. Like, for the first time I was saying last year, for the first time in the history of Iraq you have an autonomous, independent union in Iraq, in Basra, and they started in May 2003. Now they have ten of thousands–

JAY: A trade union?

AL-NASSERI: Yes. Ten of thousands of members, and mobilization capabilities of, like, 250,000 people. And the new thing about these unions: they are not state- or party-affiliated like other unions in Iraq. And at the same times, they were and are against the privatization of oil in Iraq and against the occupation, against the security agreement. And you have such forces in Iraq, secular forces, leftists, actually, they can mobilize different communities in Iraq against the occupation and privatization, etcetera. So it’s not only the Sadr movement or Fadhila anymore; sometimes you have an alliance between a movement with these trade unions and other secular forces and parties against the occupation and so on. And I think that the Iraqis now, since, you know, the developments, especially, this year, al-Maliki realize if he doesn’t make any compromise with the secular segment of the Iraqi societies, with al-Sadr movement, with some ex-members of the regime, not Baathist, or maybe a Baathist but not Saddamist, if he doesn’t make compromise with them, he will not have functioning state institutions, they cannot satisfy the basic need of the Iraqi people, and he will not have enough political capital to back him up against the United States in his negotiation of security agreement and so on, because he knows exactly that the US have a lot of resources economically, financially, and militarily to destabilize his regimes. So this [inaudible] in the last few months show that Iraqi in a peaceful way, and all their different segments, can come together, work out an issue together [inaudible] for the future.

JAY: So Maliki caught between an American rock and an Iranian hard place–

AL-NASSERI: Exactly. And domestically.

JAY: And domestically. In the American strategic mindset, there’s always been the thinking that how the heck could we have done all this, to quote-unquote "hand" Iraq to Iran. But how realistic is that? If there’s one thing that’s happening, even amongst all this inter-fighting amongst the Iraqi forces, on the whole they are standing up to the Americans in a way the Americans never expected. But would they also stand up to the Iranians the same way?

AL-NASSERI: Yes. I would say yes, because most of them, even those Shiite political parties, they’ll be like al-Sadr movement. You will see they are nationalists in Iraqi sense, though they are Shiite. And though they have good connections to Iran, not necessarily to the regime, but they have a connection to some part of the regimes supported within Iran and so on, but they are nationalists. So they are clear about these issues. They don’t want to have any US influence, but also no Iranian, Turkey, or whatever—Syrian influence in Iraq. I am definitely sure about [inaudible]

JAY: Then the final point is this, is that Obama’s always talked about—and he said this in Congress during the Petraeus report to Congress—he said, "What if we left 30,000 or 40,000 troops there? Could we at least maintain the status quo?" which seemed to be his idea of what should happen in Iraq. One is: are the Iraqi’s government going to allow 30,000 or 40,000 American troops there? And if the answer to that’s no, are the Americans ready to really get out completely?

AL-NASSERI: Yeah. Now, this is also one of the problem of this agreement, of this so-called SOFA, because there are some paragraph there saying that the United States will help Iraq technically, logistically, militarily, etcetera, in its war and struggle against terror and ex-Baathists, etcetera. So that means you have some US troops in Iraq, not necessarily combat troop, but troops, you know, in logistical, military sense, operative sense, helping the Iraqis. So in this sense Obama was thinking: to keep such troops, to train Iraqis, and to help them technical or logistic sense, etcetera, and they will do the job. But the Iraqis are saying now, "We don’t want any US troops, neither combat nor any kind of troops, because we are capable of taking care of our own securities." So the thing is, if the United States manage to sign this agreement, despite all the problem it has with this agreement, because, you know, they give up all these issues like permanency of US bases in Iraq, and so on. But they think in this way: since all these paragraphs in this document so ambiguous that they can reinterpret the document different way, they can sign a new agreement with the Iraqis, even after 2011. But this issue, I would argue, now it will be settled out in Iraq, and the Iraqi would be against it. So even if the United States were thinking, tactically, let us sign this agreement despite all these differences, etcetera, but then we have something to start with and to open up new spaces. It’s also [inaudible]

JAY: So what’s Obama’s real choices, then? What [inaudible]?

AL-NASSERI: So Obama, the only choice—.

JAY: January 20 he’s there, and then January 31 is the election there. So some time in that 10 or 11 days, although in reality they must be working on it now—.

AL-NASSERI: I think he said the first thing he’s going to do once he’s in his office is exactly this, to end the war in Iraq. That means he will now contact the Iraqi government publicly and trying to, as he said, in a 16-month time to withdraw the US troops from Iraq.

JAY: And it sounds, from what you’re saying, there’s really no reason why they can’t just get the heck out of there.

AL-NASSERI: Yes. This is the only thing [inaudible]

JAY: Even from an American interest.

AL-NASSERI: Yes. But the other thing, as you know, Paul, these state apparatuses, especially the security apparatuses in the United States, they have their own [inaudible] their own logic, and their own strategies, and so on. It’s not necessarily they agree with what the president is saying. And they can create fait accomplis in Iraq to extend, and probably despite the [inaudible] of the president, the new president, to end the occupation and the war they create [inaudible]

JAY: Well, after eight years of so much, how are they going to give up their leverage on the oil fields?

AL-NASSERI: Exactly. So this is the point. And I think this issue will be settled out in Iraq through resistance and not through negotiation or agreement.

JAY: Thank you very much.

AL-NASSERI: My pleasure.

JAY: And we’ll look forward to the 20th of Obama, and then we’ll look forward even more to see, in terms of Iraq, the 31st and see what happens in these elections. And as we get closer to the elections, I hope you’ll come back, and we’ll talk about how things look.

AL-NASSERI: Fine.

JAY: Thanks for joining us for our interviews, series of interviews, with Sabah al-Nasseri. And, again, the donate button, because without you clicking the donate button and giving money, we can’t do these stories. Thank you very much. And thank you.

AL-NASSERI: Thank you.

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