In Iraq, the First Priority Is to Be Human

They don't like the occupation or the militias, and they aren't signing up for any political or religious faction. Instead, these Iraqis want to live with their neighbors in peace.

Three generations from the Turkmen community pose for a photo in their home in Kirkuk.

Photo by Maxim Marmur/Getty Images

As Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war, with Sunni-Shiite violence terrorizing the center and south, the northern city of Kirkuk is waiting to explode. In this city, Kurds and Turkmen had been forced from their homes under Saddam. They are now returning to find Arab families in their houses. The Kurdish militias that control much of Iraq's north hope to annex oil rich Kirkuk as the capital of their autonomous zone. A tense three-way rivalry between Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen has developed.

Yet it is in Kirkuk that Iraq's civil resistance movement is building a new model for a secular society that puts equal citizenship ahead of ethnic or sectarian identity.

The Iraqi Freedom Congress (IFC), founded in March 2005, brings together labor unions, student groups, women's rights organizations, and neighborhood assemblies to defend civil society against the occupation troops and profusion of armed factions. The IFC is working to establish a parallel governance structure to that of the U.S.-backed regime and armed militias linked to ethnic and religious groups. Its working model for this program is a Kirkuk neighborhood that it has established as an autonomous zone, dubbed Al-Tzaman—Solidarity.

“Anybody can live in this area,” IFC president Samir Adil said of Al-Tzaman, speaking at a Tokyo conference held by Japan's Movement for Democratic Socialism in January to support Iraq's civil resistance. “This is a humanity area—nobody has the right to ask you your religion or ethnic identity.”

The neighborhood of some 5,000 has a mixed population of Sunni Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds, and has been an IFC autonomous zone fora year. In a starkly divided city, it has become a haven for peaceful co-existence. The IFC renamed the neighborhood Solidarity from its Saddam-era militarist appellation of Asraiwal Mafkodein—“Prisoners of War and Missing,” a tribute to conscripts lost in the war with Iran.

“There is no government in Iraq—the government is only within the Green Zone,” Adil says, explaining the proliferation of militias. “If you give security they support you.” Adil admits the IFC has established armed checkpoints in Al-Tzaman to prevent infiltration by militia and insurgent groups at night. He claims a local presence by the al-Zarqawi network has been cleared out by the IFC's efforts. Adil says the IFC is now seeking to establish a second autonomous zone in the Baghdad neighborhood of Husseinia—and is in a contest with the Shiite Badr militia, which has a presence there.

“Every household in Iraq is armed now,” Adil says.“Iraqi society is a jungle society—you have to have a gun to defend your family.” Despite this reality, he emphasizes that the IFC is seeking to build a civil resistance to the occupation—not an armed insurgency.

“Civilian people are paying the price for the armed resistance, so we believe it is a bad tactic,” he says. “But we are mobilizing the people to protect themselves.” In addition to Kirkuk and Baghdad, Adil says the IFC has a significant presence in Basra in the south and in the northern Kurdish-controlled zone. “Iraq has become an international battleground,”Adil says. “Every terrorist group and every terrorist state wants to exploit the situation in Iraq — Iran, Sunni political Islam backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the U.S.”

Adil, like many of the IFC leaders, is a veteran of political struggle against the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Born in Baghdad in 1964, he was imprisoned for six months in 1992 for labor activities. He was tortured in prison—he never removes his cap, but along scar can be seen extending down his scalp to his temple. Supporters in Canada launched an international campaign that finally won his release. Exiled to Canada, he returned to Iraq in 2003 to help revive an independent political opposition.

If post-Saddam Iraq affords the possibility of building a new political movement, the new ethnic and religious polarization makes that movement more essential than ever, Adil says. To illustrate how the atmosphere has changed, Adil, who was born into a Shiite family, says he only became aware that his wife was born into a Sunni one when they discussed returning to Iraq together and realized their “mixed”marriage could become an issue. His wife chose to remain in Canada.

The IFC brings together several organizations, including the Federation of Workers' Council and Unions in Iraq—one of the major post-Saddam labor alliances, the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq—which is fighting the Sharia measures in the new constitution, and the Kurdistan Center for the Defense of Children's Rights.

An incident that helped spark the IFC's founding came in March 2005, when a Christian female student was physically attacked by the Sadr militia at a campus picnic at Basra University, and a male student who came to her defense was shot and killed. Thousands of students marched in protest, and the Sadr militia was driven from the campus. These struggles led to the establishment of the National Federation of Student Councils, another IFC member organization.

Also attending the Tokyo conference was Nada Muaid, vice president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, who described the group's volunteer medical teams, computer classes for women, and shelters in Baghdad and Kirkuk for women fleeing domestic violence or “honor killings.” Such cases of women being murdered by their own families for adultery or even for being raped have exploded since the U.S. invasion, Muaid says. “Political Islam has pushed women back under this occupation.”

Basic services are in rapid decline because of the heightened insecurity. “NGOs are pulling out due to kidnappings just as needs are growing — water is of poor quality and unreliable; blackouts are frequent, ”Muaid says. The Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq is organizing self-help projects for women and expanding its medical teams into full health clinics. Azad Ahmed Abdullah of the Children's Protection Center tells a similar story. The group was founded in 1999 in the Kurdish zone to help children wounded or left homeless in the war or addicted to drugs. It spread after the fall of Saddam and now runs shelters in Baghdad and Kirkuk, and is establishing programs in Basra and Sulaymaniyah. The Tokyo conference featured an exhibit of art by Iraqi children from the Protection Center's workshops—most of it, not surprisingly ,on themes of war.

Abdullah sees the collapse of the economy and public services as fueling the growth of political Islam.“ The public schools now demand payment that many families cannot afford,” he says. “Religious schools are filling the void. And political Islamic groups exploit children for suicide bombings.”

Sanaria, a nine-year-old girl from Kirkuk who was part of the IFC delegation at the Tokyo conference, recounted friendships torn apart in her school by the ethnic tensions, and how she was ostracized by Turkmen and Arab classmates for speaking Kurdish.

Even a month before the horrific bombing of the Golden Mosque at Samarra, Samir Adil warned that Iraq was sliding toward collapse of the government and civil war. “Ethnic and nationalist conflict is deepening day by day. The militias carry out disappearances, throw bodies in the desert every night.”

Adil says the IFC advocates non-collaboration with the Iraqi government as long as the country is occupied by foreign troops and as long as the new state is based on “dividing power and oil proceeds between the ethnic factions.” Instead he calls for “public accountability and visibility [regarding the] administration of resource money for the benefit of the Iraqi people as a whole.”

While Arab nationalists call for officially defining Iraq as “part of the Arab homeland” and Kurdish nationalist parties ultimately seek secession, Adil says the IFC sees Iraq as first and foremost “part of the world.” He says the IFC opposes federalism as a recipe for civil war and the permanent fracturing of the Iraqi state. He calls for an Iraqi state in which the citizen is not a member of an ethnic or religious group but “human first, human last, and human always.”

Asked for a message for readers in the United States, Adil says, “The U.S. lost in Vietnam not because the U.S. lost soldiers in Vietnam, but because they lost the support of the American people. But we don't want the American people to just protest to bring the troops home, but to support the secular progressive forces in Iraq, to think about the Iraqi people. We do not want another Taliban regime or Islamic Republic in Iraq.”

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