Uniting for Peace

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In the run-up to the International Peace Conference, Socialist Review spoke to Iraqi and US activists about the occupation, the resistance and the international movement. John Rees introduces the interviews by explaining the importance of December's event.

The largest and most representative Iraqi delegation to visit Britain since the invasion will attend the International Peace Conference organised for 10 December in London. Muqtada al-Sadr's foreign representative will join Sheikh al-Khalassi, the general secretary of the largest umbrella organisation of anti-occupation forces, the Iraqi National Foundation Congress, Hassan Juma, leader of the Southern Oil Workers Union, and a representative from the Women's Will Organisation. Delegates from the US are already registering every day, and they include many of the leaders of the military families organisations.

The call for the conference is issued in the name of a growing list of MPs, trade union leaders and leading anti-war campaigners, including two of the former UN representatives in Iraq. The aim of the conference is both to issue a call for peace and a call for international action. In Britain it gives activists the chance to connect with the much wider anti-war sentiment in the country. The opinion polls now show not only that a continued majority believe the war was unjustified, but also that a majority believe that the London bombings were linked to the invasion of Iraq and that they want the troops brought home.

The 24 September demonstration proved that the active core of the anti-war movement remains very large. It also showed, surely counter to the government's hopes, that in the aftermath of the London bombings, government propaganda and attacks on civil liberties have not intimidated anti-war protesters. The core of the anti-war movement can use the building of this conference as a way of reaching out to and involving the wider anti-war constituency in the country.

Each city is being asked to make a list of the unions, churches, mosques, NGOs, student unions, and community and cultural organisations that they can approach to send delegates. Like the People's Assembly organised during the war, this can be a huge expression of the widest possible anti-war feeling in Britain. To achieve this activists will need to be making appointments to see key figures in this wider movement. Stop the War Coalition activists should ask if they can come and put the case to the next meeting or committee of all these bodies, so they can ensure that they each send the largest possible delegation to London on 10 December.

The conference can also help to present a united and identifiable face of those opposing occupation in Iraq to the wider public. The government likes to pretend that all those Iraqis who oppose it are 'terrorists', 'foreign fighters', 'Saddam remnants' and so on. The Iraqi delegation to the conference will dispel these myths at a stroke. It will be drawn from Sunni and Shia, from secular and religious backgrounds, from trade unionists and women's organisations.

Those who have already met these Iraqi representatives know that they have a story to tell about their occupied country that is shockingly different from the media and government-approved version. This picture is not one of 'gradual improvement' and of 'milestones on the road to democracy'. It is a picture of a people struggling against a brutal occupation, against the centrifugal forces which that occupation has set in motion in Iraqi society, and of a people desperately in need of a global movement that will act in solidarity with them.

One of the difficulties faced by anti-war campaigners has been that those opposing the occupation in Iraq have no common organisation, like the South African anti-apartheid campaigners had in the ANC, which can express the opposition of the Iraqi people. The delegates at this conference can collectively represent that voice.

The conference will be a unique forum where those who have lost the lives of their family members and those who have fought in Iraq can meet with representatives of the Iraqi people and hammer out a joint approach to peace.

It seems a tragic certainty that the hundredth British soldier will die in Iraq before the conference takes place. Military families organisations from both Britain and the US will be at the conference, and they will have the chance to participate in making a call for peace alongside the Iraqis whose country the US and British troops are occupying. It will be a powerful message from the ordinary people of the three countries most embroiled in this war that they are utterly opposed to the quagmire into which they have been cast by the British and US leaders.

If, at the conclusion of this conference, we can issue not only a call for peace but also a cry for united global demonstrations on the anniversary of the war in March 2006 then we will have made the London International Peace Conference a historic event.

The International Peace Conference will take place on Saturday 10 December at the Royal Horticultural Hall in central London.

To book a place or for more information phone 020 7278 6694/6 or go to www.stopwar.org.uk.

Haifa Zangana, Iraqi novelist and activist

Do you think the constitution will bring any changes to Iraq?

We've heard this story before. When the timetable for the handover was established by Paul Bremer we were told that things would change overnight. The minute after the handover stability would return to Iraq and life would change totally - all the big promises. The same happened when the elections were held. It seems the occupying forces are setting a certain timetable regardless of the Iraqi people, their priorities and aspirations. I don't think the constitution is going to change anything except as an instrument to further divide the Iraqi people. Even the committee which wrote the constitution was divided from the beginning according to the sectarian pattern which has divided the government. There are ratios of one political party or another, one sect or another, and this has divided people. The longer this process is pursued in Iraq, the more divisions there will be among the people themselves.

What do you think the attitude of Iraqis is towards the occupation after the incident in Basra with the two SAS soldiers?

The south has been unstable for a long time. It wasn't as stable as the British media would like us to think. The media reports improved on the behaviour of British troops - they know how to deal with people, they approach Iraqis without their sunglasses on so they can look them in the eye, all those little things. But the hatred for the occupation is the same all over the country whether you're dealing with US or British troops. The British troops are clever in a way because they don't go on the streets. They are well protected within their camps. That's the difference between the south and the centre of Iraq.

There have been many demonstrations since the burning of the British amoured vehicle. There were big demonstrations in Basra, Samarrah and A'mara demanding that the occupying forces leave. There were also other demonstrations not related directly to the withdrawal of troops, but dealing with the daily demands of people for better services like clean water, electricity, and for children to be able to go to school. What the people in the south are asking of the British occupiers is, if as you claim it's much safer in the south, why aren't you providing better services? We understand in the west of Iraq, in Baghdad itself where there is strong resistance, it might be difficult to provide basic services. But if you're claiming it's so much safer in the whole of the three southern provinces in Iraq, why aren't you doing that for the people?

Do you think a civil war can happen in Iraq?

What we have to ask is, what kind of civil war? If we are talking about ordinary Iraqis going around killing each other, I doubt it's ever going to happen. But if we are talking about militias belonging to and representing political parties which have moved inside Iraq with the occupying forces - then this is happening. This is because the interim government is based on sectarian and ethnic divides. The same political parties have their own militias, and they use them to sort out differences. For example, if they want to have three cabinet ministers but get only one, they will go and shoot one of the other party's, to get more cabinet ministers. The militias are powerful and they have weapons. The Americans and the British knew about it from the beginning, yet they've done nothing to deal with it, because they want to divide the Iraqi people.

Luckily these sectarian divides are not rooted deeply inside Iraqi society, and I believe Iraqis can survive the horrendous attempts to divide them. But again the occupying forces and militias are trying to provoke a situation that has been unthinkable before in Iraq.

How do you think we can get rid of the occupation?

I am a great believer in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 73 of December 1978, which reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of people for independence by all means. So, by all means, we are doing that in Iraq. We are resisting occupation. Let's bear in mind that resisting occupation will take a long time - it's not something that's going to happen tomorrow. As we heard from the occupying forces' spokespersons, American and British, they have the intention of staying in the country for as long as it takes - an open end for sure.

First we have the armed resistance, which is directly targeting British and American forces, their suppliers, and anything related to them. This is in accordance with the United Nations resolution, which includes the armed resistance.

Secondly there is the political resistance - there, we have many political parties and groups involved. The best example I can give is the Iraqi National Foundation Congress. This is an umbrella group of over 22 political parties and groups and is also affiliated to by over 50 independent organisations, including three women's organisations. They all represent the entire political arena. They are the people who are acting on the level of ordinary society as they rush to unite people whenever there is an act dividing them. For example, when churches or mosques have been destroyed delegates from this group will rush to where the incident is, offer protection, try to reconcile people, and put an end to feelings of bitterness, anger and revenge. They are also active in raising awareness politically.

Thirdly, we have very strong ties within community organisations - mosques and some of the independent NGOs working on human rights inside Iraq, such as women's organisations. These groups are doing what should be done by the state, providing services like running clinics in different areas, a mosque which can supply electricity by buying big generators in an area, etc. And fourth, which is a very important part of the resistance, is the networking and links with the outside world. That is true with the international movements like Stop the War, peace movements and anti-globalisation movements. International public support is very important for us - we need it, especially from the countries which are sending troops to Iraq.

No occupation lasts forever, and in Iraq it is not going to last. Like in Vietnam, the sooner the occupation forces pull out, the better for them. And it would be definitely better for the people, moneywise and lifewise. This conference in December is going to give a platform to the voices of the people, to declare clearly that this war, this occupation, has to come to an end, starting with the withdrawal of the troops.

Saad Jawad, Professor of politics, University of Baghdad, and member of the Iraqi National Foundation Congress

What do the Iraqi people think of the new constitution?

The problem of the constitution is that - apart from the fact it is a bad one - people were not showing that much of an interest, because of the great number of difficulties they are facing daily. Electricity, water resources, petrol, security - everything is a problem now in Baghdad. I do not think that people were ready to forget all these problems and go to the ballot only to vote.

There is more interest shown in the constitution in Britain than there is in Baghdad, or in Iraq in general. I think that the US and Britain want to show the world that they are not totally failing in Iraq, that they have achieved something again. They talked about the success of the democratic elections, but when you look at the real political picture after the elections you find that the same faces which were imposed by the US in 2003 were brought back after the elections. On top of that, even if there were new faces, there is nobody here who could say that the situation will be better after the constitution than it was before it.

How do the Iraqi people see the occupation, and what do you see as the best strategy to get rid of it?

The Iraqis are well aware that the occupation forces are trying to find an outlet to get out of the country by telling the world that they have provided the country with a constitution, with a democratic system, and they can now safely leave Iraq.

The best strategy is to get the UN involved in the process to replace the US forces and administration, and to carry out a plan for reconciliation and free elections. The US should announce a clear timetable for its forces to pull out in order to convince those who are staying out of the political process to join in.

What was the reaction in Basra when British troops stormed the police station to free two of their soldiers?

The problem in Basra is that the British forces thought for a long time that they were living in a safer area. Actually Basra is a very dangerous place for the British for two reasons. First, the Islamic influence in this area is growing up and it is anti-British. Second, the Iranian influence is also growing up, and it is also anti-British. It's no accident that the attacks on British forces were carried out by people they claimed to be Iranian stooges. Iran has a growing confidence due to the fact that the US failed their 'Iraq test'. It leads them to be even more critical of the US and Britain.

I think the British are working hard to hide what their SAS soldiers were doing. A similar incident occurred involving US soldiers in another area. An Iraqi police patrol claimed that they had arrested two undercover US soldiers trying to trigger a bomb somewhere around Baghdad. And there, similarly to what happened in Basra, they stormed the police station in which the soldiers were held, took them away and closed the case. Nothing about it went out to the media.

Are people conscious of the world movement against the occupation?

They hear about it, but less than the Iraqi intellectuals and people who have access to information. But the majority of people still think that they have been left alone, that their country is being occupied without any justifications, and without the support of the international community and the UN. They are now wanting compensation for the occupation as well as for the 12 years of UN sanctions.

It is again very important to remind the British public that what their government has done to the Iraqis is intolerable. It brings back memories of when the British were occupying Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s. I think the British public should demand that the British government issues a public apology to the Iraqi people.

Sheikh Hassan al-Zarqani, Foreign affairs spokesperson for Muqtada al-Sadr

How do Iraqis view the occupation?

At first Iraqis felt that the occupation had ended the nightmare of the rule of Saddam and the Ba'ath Party, but as time went by the situation changed, and they found the occupiers behaving just like the old regime. So the Iraqi people strongly rejected the occupation, just as they had rejected Saddam. If the multinational forces had simply got rid of Saddam and left the Iraqi people free to govern themselves it would have been much better. But instead Iraq was occupied, and we saw the same killings and assassinations as under Saddam. Meanwhile basic services weren't functioning.

Is there a difference between the behaviour of the British army and the Americans?

An occupier is an occupier, whatever he's called. The confusion lies in the fact that the British occupation had a different style of operating to the American army, which relies on the language of force and weapons. So the majority of areas in the south were quieter than areas which were under US control. However, recently we've seen the British army behaving in ways we didn't expect - working against the Iraqi police and undermining the sovereignty of the Iraqi government, in their attack to free two British soldiers after they were arrested driving a car in which they were carrying boobytraps and bombs through a crowded area. This had a great impact on the Iraqi street, particularly in Basra. We all saw on CNN how people were confronting the British soldiers.

You can't say all the occupying forces behave in exactly the same way, however. Those people living under Italian control feel it is lighter than British control, while British control is lighter than US control. So there is a difference between the British and the Americans. But what has happened recently is that the Iraqi people are in a state of mental exhaustion. They have no clear view of the future, no opportunities for work, and unemployment and disease are spreading while they lack basic services. People are fed up of the occupation, whether they are in Basra or Baghdad, under British rule or American rule.

The western media talks a lot about an imminent civil war in Iraq. What do you think of the prospects of such a thing happening?

At the time of the fall of the regime there was no sign of these problems. Everyone was united by the disappearance of Saddam and the Ba'ath Party. But as time passed, the occupying forces began to encourage conflict between the different sects - attacking this mosque or that husseiniya [Shi'ite place of worship], and setting people against each other on the basis of different religious denominations and ethnic background. We've moved from a situation of popular violence to organised violence by the occupying forces against the Iraqi people.

There is another problem, which is the entry of sectarian groups into Iraq who claim that all other Muslims are unbelievers. They are also responsible for the deterioration in the situation. Despite this Iraqi people are not about to embark on a civil war.

Has the international movement had an impact?

We have been invited by Stop the War more than once in the past and haven't been able to come to Britain for technical reasons, as His Eminence Muqtada al-Sadr refused to allow us to visit one of the occupying countries. But he has been convinced of the crucial role that Stop the War plays supporting the Iraqi people, so he has allowed us to come to London to visit the Iraqi community and Stop the War, and not to visit the British government. So we hope that we will be able to visit you in December so that we can work hand in hand to end the occupation and lift this oppression from the Iraqi people.

What is the strategy for getting rid of the occupation?

There are three types of military operations. Firstly there are attacks carried out by non-Iraqi groups targeting civilians and innocent people. You can't really call them 'resistance fighters' - they are committing crimes against the Iraqi people and damaging the reputation of the resistance. There is a huge gulf between these points of view. Another section of the resistance is not fighting to defend our homeland but to regain power and to further its own interests. These people want to return to positions of illegitimate power.

But there is a third faction which is fighting for Iraq and Iraqis, for the liberation of our country. The genuine resistance is trying to forge a united front - not one which the Ba'athists or Zarqawi and his supporters have created - which brings together all the factions which reject occupation and want to serve the Iraqi people, not those who don't distinguish between the Iraqi people and the occupying forces. The first demand of the genuine resistance is to end the occupation and defend the unity of Iraq.

Joseph Gerson, US writer and co-founder of United for Peace and Justice

The US peace movement seems to have revitalised itself over the past few months. What do you put this down to?

I think there are several things. One is that the war has gone so badly. The US death toll is now approaching 2,000. There are also heavy strains in many communities because of national budget cuts, and without a draft many of the soldiers are middle-aged ordinary people and from communities across the country. Also the lies are all so clear now. But I think the second thing to focus on is the growth in the movement of a series of organisations: Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Families for Peace, and the Iraq Veterans Against the War. They've all given a really good boost to the movement, and they've been able to break into mainstream America. They're not speaking in any political rhetoric, and this has a huge impact. And of course the individual action of Cindy Sheehan was very important.

Would it be accurate to say there is a crisis in the administration now about what to do about Iraq?

The administration has a crisis at multiple levels. There's always been a split within the military over this war. Major sectors of the US elite now see the war as the greatest strategic blunder in US history, all 230 years. So that opens all kinds of splits. There are elite Republican figures from Brent Scowcroft to Melvin Laird saying that what the government is doing is undermining its credibility, and it is necessary to recreate integrity for the success of the imperial state. The imperial state is in crisis because of the lies associated with the war and because of its failures in the geostrategically important Middle East that threaten to seriously undermine US global power and influence.

Bush is also in trouble because of his failed Hurricane Katrina response. Seeing people dying, seeing people in such desperate circumstances with the US government not attending to their needs, on our television, day after day, night after night, has alienated Bush from many of the US people. We see that our government is doing worse in serving its people than is often the case in some Third World nations.

After Cindy Sheehan, Hurricane Katrina and the massive 24 September demonstrations, what's the mood in the movement?

The challenge has been how to build off the momentum we've created. On the one hand, you'll remember that about 375 people were arrested outside the White House on 24 September. This was a powerful act in itself, and it is encouraging more people to think about the possibilities of civil disobedience.

As we approach the 2,000th reported US death in Iraq, there's a call by the American Friends Service Committee and United for Peace and Justice for major public events across the country to focus on the growing number of US war dead. We will be deluging the offices of Senators and members of the House of Representatives with 2,000 messages and phone calls, and in some cases delivering 2,000 black ribbons to congressional offices. We will also soon be moving into the 2006 electoral Congressional elections. My guess is there will be significant action focused in the electoral arena. Eight Iraq veterans are now running for Congress, most of them anti-war, and if an anti-war tide manifests itself in the election, it will pressure and give encouragement to other Democratic members of Congress. And one of the areas that will be discussed at the International Peace Conference on 10 December will be the possibility of a global day of action.

The government and media have tried hard to present the Iraqi constitution as a turning point in Iraq that will bring peace and democracy. How much success have they had in convincing Americans of this?

People are tired of Bush's lies. The propaganda that the constitution will make things better is going to have a negligible influence at best, not only on the US movement, but on US opinion as a whole. What people see is the daily death toll, terrorist bombing attacks that kill 25 people and more on a routine basis, the US aerial attack on Ramadi that killed 70 people, most of whom were civilians. There are two different kinds of media in the US. There's the typical authoritarian sector and there's a more liberal wing, which also plays a role manufacturing consent, but which also represents the part of the elite that is trying to figure how to deal with the greatest strategic blunder in US history. The fact that this is a sham operation is pretty clear to many in the US. The other dimension of the rushed vote on the constitution is that the military, and maybe some Republicans, want to begin the withdrawal of US forces in time to affect the 2006 elections. The constitution and the 15 December vote will be the cover that they use, and I think they'll try to do what they did in Vietnam - changing the colour of the corpses and having more Iraqis fighting for a client state, leaving US troops there for smaller operations targeted against the insurgency.

What is the mood like in the military families campaigns at the moment? What do they say about morale among the troops serving in Iraq?

A lot of the military families are in contact with their loved ones, and they are talking about terrible morale among the troops in Iraq who want to come home. But there are also a number who are going back voluntarily. What is interesting and frightening is that whereas with a draft military like we had during the Vietnam War, where the soldiers' primary identification is with civilian society, and they rotate through the units, the US military is increasingly structured around the knowledge that the reason most soldiers will fight and actually pull the trigger to kill other people is to keep their comrades from being killed, not loyalty to any particular set of ideals. The principal bonds are soldier to soldier, not soldier to family, or soldier to community or constitution. Even people who oppose the war go back to Iraq, because they feel that if they don't, and if one of their buddies catches a bullet, it will be because they failed to protect their comrade. So you have a military that's increasingly accountable to itself, not to the rest of society, and the history of the 20th century tells us that this can be very dangerous.

Hurricane Katrina showed in a particularly stark way how deeply connected the war is to social injustice inside the US. How do you see the anti-war movement relating to the broader struggle for justice?

United for Peace and Justice initially was United for Peace, and made a conscious decision to add the word 'Justice' to communicate its commitments. A majority of its leadership are people of colour. The most popular slogan and T-shirt at the 24 September demonstration was one that said 'Build levees, not bombs.' The peace movement still has a way to go, but I think the relationship with the broader struggle is greater than it was during the Vietnam War. It's principally an anti-war movement. Yet had the Bush government spent one eighth of what the US spends in Iraq in one year, New Orleans could have been saved. There were the resources available that were not used, and people are aware of this.

How important do activists in the US see the International Peace Conference?

The emails about the conference have now moved deeply into the grassroots level of the US movement, and certainly where I live and work people are talking about how many representatives they should send. I think it will provide important learning opportunities as well as opportunities for networking and planning. One of the challenges for us in the US is that, because the media has been so embedded with the military and the focus of the military families and Iraq veterans has been on the US casualties and deaths, understanding of Iraqi suffering in the war has not been as visible as it should be. So one of the most important parts of the conference, certainly for people from the US, will be hearing Iraqi voices and being able to engage with Iraqis.

Cindy Sheehan, Mother of Casey who died in Iraq in April 2004, and co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace

It is obvious that you have caught the imagination of millions in the United States and beyond. How do you think this happened?

Although I haven't had much time to analyse it, what I think happened in Crawford was something totally unprecedented, and totally unexpected. What was exposed there was something you and I already knew - the peace movement has been alive and well in the US. Camp Casey gave a voice to that movement, and gave it a place to focus on and turn to.

How much impact have the military families and the veterans campaign had?

At Camp Casey the 'Bring Them Home Now' bus tour was initiated. This tour included three buses that left Crawford carrying veterans for peace, Gold Star family members, Iraq veterans against the war, and military family members. In a little over three weeks, these buses held rallies and events in over 50 cities, helping to build for the 24 September demonstrations. Military families and veterans have definitely helped to strengthen the movement.

Do you get a sense of what morale is like in the US army?

I frequently talk to veterans and enlisted soldiers, many whom are still over in Iraq. At Camp Casey, a lot of soldiers came to visit who were stationed at nearby Fort Hood. They have told me to keep doing what I'm doing. They have said that the peace movement is the only way to get the United States out of Iraq and to bring the troops home.

It is we in the peace movement who are proving that sending soldiers over there to an unjustified war, soldiers who are not well equipped - this is what harms their morale.

What impact do you think the 24 September demonstrations had?

It is hard to say what kind of impact the demonstrations had because, of course, the media did not cover them properly. But for the hundreds of thousands who came out and participated, and for their families and friends, I think the demonstrations were very powerful and meaningful.

Do you think a turning point has been reached over the war in the US?

Yes. Right now we need to emphasise to the Democrats that it is time to start pounding on the fact that we are operating under failed policies. The Democrats just think that they are going to sit back and wait two months - giving enough time for the Iraqi elections and referendums to fail. But in that two months, how many more families are going to receive that devastating knock on the door? The Democrats understand this, and they are not acting on this fact. It is a very weak position for them to take.

How has working with the Democrats been for you?

It has been extremely frustrating. Other than a handful of members of the Out of Iraq caucus in Congress, it has been very difficult. We certainly don't have an opposition party. One of our next possible steps is to focus on the 35 or so key races in the Congress and the Senate - target those races to pressure the candidates to take an anti-war stance.

Outside of electoral politics, how else can we strengthen the anti-war movement?

We need to take a positive focus. By building a paradigm of peace, our world can change. The movement needs to have strong leadership to get us out of Iraq. Right now we are thinking of getting together a meeting of the minds - gathering generals and foreign policy experts who will help to develop a plan to get out of Iraq. We need to start demanding, 'Not one more death.'

Even beyond the occupation of Iraq, I plan to stay active to keep our movement energised, to help stop pre-emptive wars, to make sure our children are never put in harm's way again. International links are very important. Tony Blair is in league with George Bush. Blair is as much of a betrayer of his people as George Bush is a betrayer to us. It is crucial that we stand together.