Thriving right under Saddam's nose

Iraq's regime was on the brink of collapse before war broke out thanks to the country's underground communities, says Yahia Said.

Little was known about Iraqi society under Saddam Hussein; two voices tended to dominate - the regime and the exiled opposition.

Ironically, both were broadcasting the same message: any act of dissent was liable to be discovered and brutally punished. In the aftermath of war, a different picture is emerging. In its waning years, Saddam's regime was post-totalitarian. Along with other state institutions, its repressive apparatus had decayed rather like that of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. This allowed some Iraqis to explore spaces vacated by the regime for various expressions of civil society - including dissent.

There were, for example, informal groups gathered around disillusioned ex-Baathists. The Hewar (dialogue) Gallery was established by Qasim Al-Sabti, an artist and committed Baathist, until he left the party in protest over the invasion of Kuwait. The gallery was a place where artists could exhibit their work and find foreign buyers. It also featured a cafe where they met to talk. Some of those who frequented Hewar were more openly opposed to the regime than others. The Najeen (survivors) group, for example, comprised young artists who did not conceal their disgust with the regime. Their leader, Basim Al-Hajjar, was expelled during his final year at the Academy of Visual Arts for refusing to make a sculpture of Saddam Hussein for his graduation project. Hewar enabled members of Najeen and others like them to appear in public, voice their opinions and exhibit their work. Hewar is still a favourite meeting place for Iraqi artists.

After the war, Najeen went on to stage the first play in the still-smouldering building of the Al-Rasheed Theatre.

Another example is the group that met every Wednesday at the house of Ali Al-Dabbagh, a former mid-level Baath party official. The group included current and ex-Baathists and debated political and theoretical issues. One member of the group was arrested and executed, but the others continued to meet. The main point of Hewar and the Wednesday group was not so much to do with opposition, but with the fact that they offered a public space outside the regime's discourse.

Mosques and seminaries offered similar spaces. Shia clerics continued to feel the full force of the regime's repression until its last days. That did not prevent them from emerging as the main source of moral authority among the Shia; Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shia, is arguably the most influential person in Iraqi politics today. Sunni clergy, too, were active in building an independent public sphere. Abdul Al-Salam Al-Kubaisi, who runs a seminary in the Baghdad district of Al-Aadhamiya, describes a strategy that was aimed at isolating the regime rather than confronting it head on. He says this strategy was working and that the regime was on the verge of collapse before war broke out. Today, Al-Kubaisi is a leading member of the Council of Muslim Clerics, a group that aspires to be the political wing of the insurgency in Sunni areas.

These spaces suggest that fear of repression is not the reason why opposition in Iraqi society under Saddam was not more visible. Most Iraqi elites, including intellectuals and professionals, sustained the regime implicitly or explicitly. Some kept a low profile and stayed out of politics. Others played along in anticipation of handouts or career advancement. At times, it seems that the regime tried to bribe the entire middle class. Some refrained from attacking the regime out of nationalist motives, fearing that its collapse would jeopardise the country's integrity and independence. Today, some Iraqi intellectuals speak about feeling guilty for not doing more to topple Saddam.

Whatever Iraqis felt about the regime, they were not ready to fight for it, as the lack of Iraqi resistance to the invading coalition forces revealed.

The Iraqi military did exactly as instructed by the coalition. They laid down their arms and went home. Something similar happened to the apparatus of the entire state. In many ways, the Iraqi state ceased to exist on April 9, 2003. But coalition troops were not prepared to fill the resulting security and political vacuum. Initially, they were not even willing to do so. Chaos ensued, with mobs stripping, dismantling and burning almost every state and public building. Iraq teetered on the brink of primordial chaos.

Even in the depths of that period, which many describe as the darkest in the country's troubled history, there were civic initiatives: workers who stayed in their factories to prevent looting; museum employees who took valuable artefacts home to protect them; local youths who formed neighbourhood watch groups; imams who organised search parties to collect and return looted medicine and equipment to hospitals. Indeed, this is how firebrand cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who later launched an armed insurgency against the occupation, started his activity in post-Saddam Iraq.

Eventually, the worst of the criminal chaos died down. The relative stability may well have been the cumulative result of the initiatives that Iraqis started to step back from the brink. Many, however, have come to the conclusion that coalition troops were all that stood between a semblance of peace and total anarchy.

Despite continuing unrest, Iraq today is bustling with self-organised groups and political debates. Initially, exile parties that had organised clandestine activities under the regime were the most visible. The Iraqi Communist Party newspaper, Tariq Al-Shaab , was the first to be distributed in Baghdad, days after the fall of Saddam. It has since been followed by an estimated 200 titles. Secular groups and parties are strongest at the national level and within new government structures. Since they are largely composed of exiles and have little capacity for mobilisation, and because they are seen to be too close to coalition forces, they are increasingly disconnected from society. Religious groups, especially those with a nationalist agenda such as Al-Sadr and the Council of Muslim Clerics, are gaining ground.

Although officially disbanded, the Baath Party and the former regime are omnipresent. Thousands of followers and recipients of favours, not to mention the regime's henchmen, find it difficult to admit they have been wrong all these years. Many ex-Baathists have joined radical Islamic parties and groups that are associated with the insurgency in one way or another. Others seek to re-enter the political mainstream. An example is the Beit Al-Hikma (house of wisdom) think-tank. Under Saddam it manufactured regime ideology on domestic and international issues. Today, with its former managers in exile, it is trying to forge a new role, relying on the intellectual potential of its members who represent some of Iraq's leading political and social scientists.

There is a plethora of old and new democratic and civic initiatives. Among students, for example, there is the General Union of Students, which was founded in 1948 and existed underground in the Saddam years. It is campaigning to restore Iraqi schools and universities, right the injustices of the regime and protect students' rights. For example, members campaigned for the return of student hostels occupied by coalition troops and arranged alternative accommodation for out-of-town students. They also succeeded in forcing the Minister for Higher Education to recognise students' right to organise.

There are a number of human rights groups in Iraq today. Some, such as the Organisation of Free Political Prisoners, have moved from cataloguing the regime's crimes and accounting for its victims to investigating human rights violations by coalition troops. A group called the Municipal Council in Amara is tracking down the regime's henchmen to make sure they do not disappear into society. The council is also monitoring local government and organising clean up and neighbourhood watch initiatives.

Women are probably the best organised segment of Iraqi society. One consequence of Saddam's war adventures and brutality is that women constitute 60 per cent of Iraq's adult population. Many women feel empowered by the opportunity to influence their country's future. Women have also benefited from the coalition's policy of significantly increasing public sector salaries because they are heavily represented in this sector.

This is creating a new dynamic within society, since many men have lost their source of income in the private sector and the military. At the same time, women are threatened by terrorist and criminal violence, forcing many to stay at home. Some religious activists, who have gained prominence since the collapse of the regime, are promoting policies that would circumscribe women's freedoms. For example, there was an attempt to refer family matters to religious Sharia Courts. A coalition of women's groups led by, among others, Hana Edward of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association, campaigned successfully against this. Women's groups also succeeded in inserting a clause into the interim constitution mandating that women constitute 25 per cent of all governing bodies - six out of 30 ministers in the current Government are women. On June 16-17, 2004, Al-Amal gathered some 360 women activists from across the country to devise a strategy for their engagement in the political process.

Security is the main issue preoccupying Iraqis. The remnants of the regime, together with domestic and foreign jihadists, are suspected of masterminding most terrorist attacks. The insurgency includes many individuals motivated by a desire to end the occupation or for personal revenge or greed.

Most Iraqis condemn terrorist acts aimed at Iraqi police, infrastructure and civilians, including attacks on academics such as the murder last month of Layla Saad, dean of law at Mosul University, but they sympathise with insurgents fighting coalition forces. This reveals the extent of the mistrust that has emerged over the past year between ordinary Iraqis and the coalition. This mistrust is being used by the Iraqi people's enemies to present themselves as their defenders.

The Interim Iraqi Government's main mission is to improve the security situation so that elections can be held by the end of the year. In order to do so, the Government needs to establish itself as the legitimate national authority. For that it needs to reach out to Iraq's burgeoning civil society. Convincing Iraqis of the viability of the peaceful path to independence and self-determination, via elections, as an alternative to violence is the main challenge of the new democratic political forces in Iraq. Only in this way can they fill the political vacuum left by the regime and isolate the perpetrators of terror.

Yahia Said is a research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. He specialises in issues of post-conflict and post-totalitarian transition and travels regularly to Iraq.

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