A Personal Take on The Modern History of Iraq – RAI with Sabah Alnasseri (4/6)
On Reality Asserts Itself, Prof. Alnasseri explains why so many Shia fought for Iraq against Iran during a war that killed more than 1.8 million people; he continues the story of his family, and how from prison, his brother was able to help Sabah escape the country
PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Network. This is Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. Continuing our series of discussions with Sabah Alnasseri. He now joins us in the studio. Thanks for joining us again.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Pleasure.
PAUL JAY: I think I actually finally said your last name correctly for the first time in this series of interviews.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Not for the first time.
PAUL JAY: Better, anyway.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Okay.
PAUL JAY: The Iranian revolution of 1979 was like an atomic bomb. I don’t think the Iranians ever really had a nuclear program, but the Iranian revolution was like a nuclear bomb going off throughout the whole Middle East, and then some.
SABAH ALNASSERI: True.
PAUL JAY: The overthrow of the shah, the removing one of the major pillars of American power in the region. One of the answers to the Americans to that was instigating Saddam Hussein to start a war with Iran.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Right.
PAUL JAY: That’s in 1980. You were still in high school. Talk a little bit about the politics of what was going on with the war but also how it affected you and your family. Let me add to that one point. Two million people killed in that war.
SABAH ALNASSERI: At least 1.2 million. This is the official figure, so we an assume that more people were killed or at least were affected by the war and later, not necessarily during this eight years. You have 1.2 million at least were killed on both sides at that time.
PAUL JAY: To a large extent orchestrated by people like Donald Rumsfeld.
SABAH ALNASSERI: And their chemical weapons. I mean, it is interesting. We realized this at that time, that the war, although it was orchestrated and pushed by the Gulf and the US and so on, was Saddam Hussein against Iran, but actually benefited Iran too. Remember, the revolution in Iran in 1979 was no so much Islamic. It was all segments of the Iranian societies. The mullahs-
PAUL JAY: Again, there was a very strong Iranian Communist Party.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Exactly. The mullahs needed actually the war to cement their dominance within this states and outside of the states by appealing to Iranian nationalism and Shiite nationalism, if you would like. At that time-
PAUL JAY: And martyrdom.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Yes, at that time they used the war to [inaudible 00:02:29] and imprison all their opponents and so on. The second thing, just like Saddam Hussein speculated at that time, that he would win the war because there is no military infrastructure in Iran anymore after the revolution, the Iranian dominant mullah group speculated that the Iraqi Shiite population would side with Iran and fight against Saddam Hussein.
That’s one of the interesting thing in Iraq. The Shiite community in Iraq actually were Iraqi nationalists and start fighting against Iran rather than siding with Iran. That’s one of the things that Iran was surprised to see the Shiite community siding with the [Ba’aths 00:03:08] in their war against Iran rather than-
PAUL JAY: By this time the Communist Party and the socialists and left have lost its power?
SABAH ALNASSERI: They we’re totally destroyed, dismantled. The trade union that used to be dominantly communist or controlled by the communists was de facto nationalized. Became a state institution and pushed much more in line with the Ba’aths-
PAUL JAY: You would think there would have been an argument like there was in the first world war from the left, that Iranian and Iraqi workers shouldn’t fight each other, and they should turn on their own regimes, but there wasn’t a force there to do that.
SABAH ALNASSERI: There’s another thing. I argued long ago against Iraqi communists, friends of mine and so on. When they used to argue that the Ba’ath regime, at least since the 80s and 90s and so on, they governed via violence, surveillance and intelligence and fear. You have Kanan Makiya in the 1986 writing a book, ‘Republic of Fear’. This is one of the neocons, by the way, in the US who sided with the Bush administration in 2003.
Talking about these things, I said, “No. The Ba’ath Party has partly legitimacy within Iraq due to the welfare state, due to the social sect networks.” All of a sudden if you are an Iraq worker you find yourself in a position where you have permanent income. You have pension. You have higher wages than before. You have better social standing because now you are not just a worker. You are a public employee.
What does this mean? Many people underestimated this. What does mean in class sense? Before, I’ll just give you an example which actually Saddam Hussein used in one of his speeches at that time. He said if you are an Iraqi worker and you go, let’s say, and you want to get married. Once the family hear that you are a worker, they will not accept you as husband of their daughter. They think your social standing is low. You don’t have enough money to secure whatever. He said, “If we make the Iraq worker a public employee. He’s not a worker anymore. He’s a public employee. Then he has claim for pensions, higher wages, better social standing and so on.” We knew, at least I think I knew, what he was aiming at. It was clever move by the Ba’aths. On the one hand it’s true, it appeals to the Iraq working class. Better social standing, better wages, better pensions, etc. to win their support to abandon the Communist Party.
The objective was, and I sensed this at that time, is to argue that okay, if we don’t have worker anymore, they are public employee, then there is no need for a trade union to represent worker. He wanted to get rid of the trade union or push them to be part of the Ba’ath state apparatus by saying, “Look, you don’t have social business anymore, so you might as well become part of the state.”
PAUL JAY: In 1980 when the war breaks out with Iran, there’s not that level of hatred against Saddam that comes later because there’s still this welfare state and the Ba’ath Party still represents that? Why do people fight in such numbers and get killed in such numbers against Iran?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Not only that. During the war, what the Ba’aths did, they increased the social spending. They increased the benefits. If you have a brother or a father or a member of the family killed in the war, you will get a car from the state. You will get, I think, something around $10,000 as compensation. You get a lot of benefits. To most of these family who lost the loved one, they were compensated in a way. People felt there is some sort of obligation of the government or the state towards the families and so on.
PAUL JAY: How did they sell that Iran was a threat?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, when I say the Shiite communities in Iraq sided with Saddam and the Ba’aths against the Iranian, because in the 1970s the biggest chunk of the Shiite communities were either Ba’ath or Communist. They were not sectarian. They were either Iraqi nationalists, and they joined the Ba’ath Party.
PAUL JAY: Why would Shi’ite communists be in favor of this war?
SABAH ALNASSERI: The communists, no. As I said, they we’re most likely in prison and so on. For the Shiite nationalists, the Iraqi nationalists. Most of the Shiite were Iraqi nationalists, and they were in the Ba’ath Party. I showed in one of my essays on Iraq after the occupation, when I was in Germany, that up to 65 or 67% of the leadership of the Ba’ath Party was Shiite, not Sunni. The narrative after the occupation that somehow the Sunni used to rule and the Shiite were victim is false. Statistically, historically and socially it’s not right. That’s why the Ba’aths were capable of appealing to the Shiite community, because most of the Shiite active segment of the population were Ba’aths and from the Ba’ath Party.
PAUL JAY: In 1982, two years after the war, you finished high school. You’re eligible to get into the army, and you leave.
SABAH ALNASSERI: I left the country, but I left illegally in a way because it was impossible to leave Iraq during the war if you are 18 and above because they need you to go to the army. You have to be smuggled out of Iraq.
PAUL JAY: How were you smuggled out?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, that’s one of the irony of time. My brother was in prison. He was tortured at that time. The guy who used to torture my brother for nine months, he starts sympathizing with my brother because he realized, well, the guy was a communist. I thought all the time that the communists, they were a satellite for the Soviet Union. They are not Iraqi nationalists and so on.
PAUL JAY: This is what the guard says.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Exactly. He thought communists are against Iraq, against whatever. They serve the Soviet Union. After torturing my brother for months, he realized, well, he’s just like Iraqi nationalists like him, but he happened to be on the side of the Communist Party. Then this officer told my brother, “Okay, I tortured you for nine months. I want to do you a favor. What kind of favor do you want from me?” He said, “You know what? I have a younger brother, my youngest brother, and I don’t want him to be in this war. If you can help him leave the country, that’s the biggest favor.” He said, “Okay.”
PAUL JAY: Did he go back to torturing him again?
SABAH ALNASSERI: No, he didn’t. He didn’t torture him. He moved him from the torture cell to a normal prison. He didn’t torture him anymore.
Then he came to me one night in a car with his own driver.
PAUL JAY: The guard?
SABAH ALNASSERI: The officer. He was pretty much feared person in the south. Just by saying his name you start shivering. One of the biggest torturers in the region at that time. That’s the irony of the whole story. This is the same guy who tortures my brother came to my house in the night with his driver. They told me, “How much time do you need to pack your stuff?” I said, “I don’t have any stuff.” He said, “Okay. Anytime you’re ready, tell me. I can bring you across the border.” He told me, “Where do you want to go?”
At that time, another older brother and my mother used to live in Kuwait, which is next to impossible. I told him, “Well, I want to go to Kuwait.” He said, “Okay, I’ll come by tomorrow morning. I’ll pick you up and make sure you will cross the border.” He did it.
I start thinking about this in the sense of even within the most rigid apparatus of the state, the secret apparatus, the intelligence, sometimes specific moment can lead to a change in the consciousness of those who torture you or surveil you and so on. One shouldn’t disregard the potential even within the most rigid apparatus of the state, the secrecy apparatus. The example of Venezuela is an excellent one. You have the army actually pursuing one of the most progressive project in the history of Venezuela and the Chavez. Again, this is, I think, one of my understanding of the Marxist theory, to look at every institution as a contradictory conflictual one, not something settled, heterogeneous, taken for granted. There are always potential of disruption, tension and so on.
PAUL JAY: Snowdens and whatever.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Yes, exactly. Even again, at that time with this, the most scary part of the security apparatus, the intelligence, the Mukhabarat, they were even more worse than other part of the security apparatus. Even there you can see some sort of tension change, etc.
PAUL JAY: Quickly, to finish the story, then eventually you wind up in Canada.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, before Canada, when I went to the Gulf, to Kuwait, I stayed for a while. Then I moved to Europe. I moved actually to Russia at that time because I have a lot of friend in Russia, to Leningrad at that time. They used to call it Leningrad, now it’s Petersburg. From Moscow to Leningrad. Then I moved from there. I couldn’t stay there. I moved to Poland. I lived for a while in Poland. Tried to study there. Didn’t work too. I then moved to England, to London. I was on both sides of the Iron Curtain at that time.
I couldn’t afford studying in England. Then one day I found myself in Germany, not for political reason, but actually for personal one. At that time I met a woman. She was from Germany. She was in London. We fall in love. Then she looked me in the eye. She said, “Why don’t we go to Germany.” I said, “Yes, I’m coming with.” I went to Germany. I had no clue where I’m going. I didn’t speak German, but I found myself in Germany. I told her one thing. “Look, if we go to Germany, then we go to Frankfurt,” because when I was in Iraq, among all the lefties especially in the Middle East, is Frankfurt is cool. The critical Marxist tradition is happy to present in Frankfurt at the Institute for Social Research. I said, “If we go to Germany, then to Frankfurt.” She said, “Yeah, okay.”
I ended up in Frankfurt with a delay of almost ten years, doing my undergrad, my grad, my PhD. Start teaching in Frankfurt before I moved to Canada ten years ago.
PAUL JAY: What happens to your brother?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Well, I haven’t seen him ever since. I remember him calling me-
PAUL JAY: You’ve never seen him since then?
SABAH ALNASSERI: No, because I didn’t go to Iraq anymore. At that time, again, I was against the Ba’aths. I was against Saddam Hussein. After 2003 I was against the war, against the occupation of Iraq because I knew it was not about the Ba’aths or Saddam because there were not Ba’aths anymore in 2003. I knew it’s about Iraq, the sanctions of Iraq and so on. I was against the occupation and against the so called Iraqi exile opposition, those who were arguing for the occupation of Iraq. I was against that too. That’s why there was a lot of campaign against me, accusing me of being a Ba’athist and I come from a communist family or accusing me of being a Sunni but actually my father was Shiite. You have all this kind of accusation just because I was against the occupation. They could not understand-
PAUL JAY: American occupation.
SABAH ALNASSERI: American occupation. Why I was arguing neither for Saddam Hussein nor for the US but for social revolution in Iraq. I said the Iraqi people are so devastated by the sanctions and so on. We can organize a change within Iraq. You don’t need the US or any other power to do it.
PAUL JAY: What happened to your brother?
SABAH ALNASSERI: The thing is, as I said, he called me. He was in prison in 1990, 1991. When the spontaneous revolt happened in 1991, people freed all the prisoners from prison in Iraq. He called me at that time. He said, “I’m free now.” I was in Germany at that time. He said, “I’m free now. I’ll talk to you later. Let’s see how things will settle. If there’s a real change and the Ba’aths are gone, so I’m here.” Then I haven’t heard anything from him anymore because as I said, it went the other way. That means the Ba’aths took over again. He fled the country, and he went to Iran to [inaudible 00:15:54] which is where you have the Arabic communities living there.
I remember my father used to have a [inaudible 00:16:03] there, so my brother went there. He called me from there. He said, “I am here. Things went totally wrong. These sectarian militias of [inaudible 00:16:17], they came and they destroyed everything in a way. Now I am here.” He said, “I’ll catch up with you later,” but he didn’t. Ever since I don’t know where he is.
I didn’t go back to Iraq because, as I said, after the occupation I was not only against the occupation, but was against the whole edifice that the United States put in place and the political class and so on.
PAUL JAY: Your father?
SABAH ALNASSERI: My father died when I was still a kid, heart attack. My mother was actually in charge for all of us. BY all, I mean I have four brothers and four sisters. There were nine of us. Only my mother. Poor family at that time. There were no social networks and so on. This was the 60s, so she has to work, clean, cook, bring us to school. Do everything by herself.
PAUL JAY: You told me she smoked cigarettes.
SABAH ALNASSERI: She smoked cigarettes. She smoked two packs a day.
PAUL JAY: She never connected again with you?
SABAH ALNASSERI: No, my mother …
PAUL JAY: Your brother never connected.
SABAH ALNASSERI: No, that’s why we don’t know. One of the things I want, there are many things I appreciate about this woman, my mother, because until today I don’t know how she managed to raise nine kids alone without any income, work, clean, everything by herself. It’s insane. One of the thing I remember, it was in 1984. I was sleeping. She woke me up at six o’clock in the morning.
PAUL JAY: This is in Kuwait?
SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, in Kuwait. She’s really very dedicated Muslim woman. She goes to [inaudible 00:18:00] and Hajj and so on. Fine. She knew I am a Marxist. She think I’m crazy, but it’s okay.
PAUL JAY: She married a Marxist.
SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, exactly. Still, she was religious, but still she has no problem with communists or whatever. That’s what I’m saying. Iraq was completely different than what was presented up to 2003. All the communities were mixed, like Shia, Sunni, Christian, Muslim and so on, socially speaking.
What happens, she wakes me up in the morning, at six in the morning, and she start shouting on me. “Are you still sleeping?” I was saying, “Why?” She said, “You’re sleeping, and your people are getting massacred.” I said, “What?” She showed me the newspaper where the Reagan administration was supporting the Contra against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. She knew I supported the Sandinistas. She was not really into politics.
PAUL JAY: She meant by your people the Sandinistas.
SABAH ALNASSERI: The Sandinistas. I was amazed. Six o’clock in the morning, and she wake me up because of that. You can see there is no contradiction between being religious or something and yet have broadly speaking a very progressive position. There is no contradiction in that. That’s why I always criticize some tendency within the left to have this modernist dichotomy between secular and religious. Somehow the secular are good and the religious are bad. The reality is not like that. You have dictators among the seculars like Saddam Hussein. Butchers. You have wonderful revolutionary minded religious people.
If you look at Iraq for instance now. You can see on both side, on the religious side, the Shiite Parties align with US, but you have the [Sudras 00:19:41] moment on the other hand, much more Iraqi nationalists against the occupation and so on. This sense of having all religious figures in one basket and assuming they are all the same, they are all ISIS or they are all the Muslim Brotherhood or they are all this and that never actually have any relation to the reality on the ground. That’s why one has to be very cautious.
Not least for political reason. Once you start organizing and protesting against the government in Iraq or in Egypt or whatever, you need to know who your allies are, which group in the society you can rely on and so on. If you make the simplistic scenario of good and bad, you will not achieve anything.
PAUL JAY: Okay, in the next segment of our interview we’re going to pick up on the conversation of what might come next in Iraq. Sabah’s story, we could keep going for quite a while because it’s fascinating, but we’re actually running out of time given today how much we can do. I hope we can pick up more of the personal narrative later. We’re going to pick up on obviously oil and what the American strategy might be for Iraq now. Please join us for what will be the final segment at least in this series with Sabah Alnasseri on Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network.