“Against All Odds”: Raising Iraqi Voices of Grassroots Resistance

(Image: Tadween Publishing and War Resisters League)(Image: Tadween Publishing and War Resisters League)Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, Ali Issa, Tadween Publishing and War Resisters League

The closest anyone in the Bush administration has come to being held accountable for the crime of the invasion of Iraq came in December 2008, when Iraqi journalist and activist Muntazar al-Zaidi threw his two shoes at President Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. Bush narrowly dodged the shoes, smirking as he popped up from behind the podium.

Al-Zaidi would go on to serve several years in prison for his crime. His message, a “final kiss” from the “widows and orphans” of Iraq, was carried on by the people of Iraq. Three years later, as Iraq experienced its own “Arab Spring,” people by the thousands threw their shoes at US military helicopters and vehicles, then on their way out, forced by the actions of the Iraqi people themselves. Al-Zaidi’s shoes helped dislodge the mask of imperial impunity.

It should be no surprise that it was an Iraqi that brought this limited form of retributive justice to Bush for what has become the supreme crime of the 21st century, a crime for which we continue to feel the consequences – some more than others. Indeed, it is Iraqis themselves who have made much of the recent history possible, a point routinely ignored in the West.

Ali Issa’s new book Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, published jointly by Tadween Publishing and War Resisters League, seeks to correct Western ignorance about resistance movements in Iraq. The major events of the last decade – from the Iraqi oil law that was never passed, to the Status of Forces Agreement at the end of Bush’s term, to the eventual “withdrawal” under President Obama, to the current resistance to ISIS and building of Iraqi secular society – were made possible through the work of regular Iraqis. Issa’s book brings these stories to life. Through interviews with key Iraqi organizers and his own writings as events unfolded during 2011, Issa’s work is a needed corrective to the absence of Iraqi voices in Western media.

The Revolts of 2011

The first section of the book, “Iraq Reports,” covers the period of 2011, the year that US combat forces finally withdrew, but not without being forced by the tremendous popular opposition manifest in public square demonstrations, workers’ revolts and sit-ins. The revolts, concurrent with the broader Arab Spring, forced the hand of the Obama administration and that of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for a more complete withdrawal. Starting in March, weekly Friday protests against the occupation culminated in the “Friday of the Imprisoned,” which drew thousands of protesters into the streets in cities across the country, despite repressive measures by the state, including the use of live ammunition. In April, Iraqis staged sit-ins at the 14 major US military bases and dozens of smaller facilities throughout the country to demand a full withdrawal.

The depth and the scope of the movement of popular resistance in 2011 were much broader than a focus on the occupation alone. The Iraq movement sent statements of solidarity to both the Syrian democracy movement and Occupy Wall Street in the United States. In addition to an end of the occupation, protesters were demanding a release of political prisoners, “economic sovereignty” and control over the country’s resources, and to rewrite the Iraqi constitution to end the sectarian divisions worked into the very fabric of Iraqi governance. Iraqi chants echoed those of the Arab Spring: “Al-sha’b yurid isqat al-nizam” – the people want the downfall of the regime.

Workers played an important role. Basra oil workers struck against corruption and low wages. The protest in Mosul, recently captured by the forces of ISIS, was the “epicenter” of the movement, and developed into what Issa calls a “general strike.” Their efforts were successful; the governor of Mosul was forced to back the protests, despite opposition from al-Maliki. According to Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi, the president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union and the first female executive of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers, Iraqi workers faced criminalization and even terrorism charges for organizing.

A Broader Look at Iraqi Activism

In the second portion of the book, Issa moves to a series of interviews with activists and organizers that covers the period of the 2011 uprising until December 2014. These interviews reflect the diversity of issues and vibrancy of the movements in the first section, including a look at women’s organizing, environmental activists, Iraqi diaspora issues, an account of the opposition to the Iraqi oil law, the 2013 wave of protests and organizing in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Some of the interviews and personal stories are astounding, like that of Jannat Alghezzi, the media director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq. Alghezzi became active with the Iraqi women’s movement after her family threatened her with honor killing and drove her to use OWFI’s safe house system. She calls the social movements and organizations that make up Iraq’s civil society, the “sole ray of light in Iraq.”

Republished blog posts and interviews offer an important look at Iraqi secular organization within horrific circumstances. These could be greatly strengthened with a much fuller historic treatment of the dramatic impacts that movements of popular resistance in Iraq had on local, regional and global history. The book could also benefit from more content from crucial sites of struggle such as Rojava, a current site of resistance efforts to ISIS. If there is a critique here, it is that the book leaves one wanting more.

A UK-based human rights organization, Action on Armed Violence, just reported that Iraq is the most dangerous country for civilians for the second year in a row. Western media accounts chose to highlight the nature of the danger, rather than the experience of the civilians who face it. Issa’s book rightly shifts the focus to those on the bottom, who shape these events as much as they are shaped by them. Their stories are both harrowing and inspirational. They demand that we get down and seek out the roots of peoples’ lived resistance. Here we find the brightest rays of light, in very dark times.