In the new Iraq, communists are still on the run
AMMAN - The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) is going through its most turbulent time since its inception 81 years ago.
Historically, ICP leaders were persecuted and slain before and during the rule of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party of dictator Saddam Hussein, who considered them a threat to his brutal regime.
Today, the ICP’s enemies are numerous. The jihadists of the Islamic State (ISIS) rule parts of Iraq and other religious parties have gained great social and political influence in the chaos that followed Saddam’s overthrow by the US-led invasion of 2003.
But worst of all perhaps, the party is shunned by ordinary Iraqis caught up in the spiral of sectarian violence between the minority Sunnis and the dominant Shias, who both regard communism as contrary to Islam and Arab nationalism.
“Iraqis of all political colours and religious affiliation look upon the communists as a bunch of infidels with an archaic ideology that died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991,” a Baghdad university sociologist told The Arab Weekly.
“Now is not really the time for the communists to come into the public arena,” said the sociologist, who declined to be identified, citing concerns for his safety.
So the ICP has been keeping a low profile since June 2014 when it publicly celebrated what it labelled as victory by its activists who allegedly took part in an army raid on an ISIS hideout north of Baghdad. ICP activists openly waved red Soviet hammer-and-sickle flags.
“It’s a delicate time for everyone,” ICP Secretary-General Hamid Majid Musa told The Arab Weekly. He declined to elaborate.
But another party official, Salah Yousef, said the ICP has faded into the background because “this period is the worst ever for us. You don’t know who the enemy is. This time is even worse than what we had under the Ba’ath Party.”
An ICP pharmacist told The Arab Weekly that the communists “are being harassed and threatened by Shias militias and Sunni insurgents”. Declining to be identified further, he said his drugstore was destroyed twice in a year — last August and in March this year — by armed “religious men from both sects, who abhor the fact that a communist is in the neighbourhood.
“The first time, two young Shias militiamen came to my pharmacy telling me to leave the area or suffer the consequences,” he said. “They gave me 24 hours to get out. Just before the deadline passed, they blew up my pharmacy with a bomb they planted on the front door.”
The second bombing was the work of Ba’athists, “but that time there was no warning”, he said.
The ICP, founded in 1934 by Yusuf Salman Yusuf, often called “Comrade Fahd” (the Leopard), is known in Arabic as Hezb al-Shuyoee al-Iraqi. Some Iraqis, however, call it the Homor — the Reds.
Once the group was one of most powerful leftist organisations in Iraq, attracting “anti-imperialist” Iraqis, rather than people well versed in Marxist-Leninist ideology.
ICP even penetrated the Iraqi army. In May 1978, Baghdad announced the execution of 21 ICP members, allegedly for organising party cells within the armed forces.
For several decades, ICP has had a rollercoaster ride in Iraqi politics, forging alliances with the Ba’ath or targeted as conspirators, its members arrested, imprisoned, repressed, assassinated or driven into exile. But the group remained a constant threat to Iraq’s ruling party, which regarded the communists as a Soviet proxy ready to cause unrest.
The ICP was persecuted long before the Ba’ath came along, first by British authorities and then the post-independence Hashemite monarchy and its elite, who used the communist militia organisation to suppress their opponents.
Although the ICP was legalised in 1937, and again in 1973, the Ba’athists regularly suppressed it after 1963 and outlawed it altogether in 1985. That year, the party split over the leadership’s support for the “armed struggle” of Iraqi Kurds and opposition to Saddam’s devastating 1980-88 war with Iran.
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, ICP’s old contacts and long experience gave it some political clout and it won a single seat in the 328-member parliament.
In 2014, two ICP members were elected to the legislature, including Kamel Fares Jejo, a Christian from the northern city of Mosul who was named science and technology minister.
Pointing to the ICP’s ability to survive and regroup in the face of constant adversity, the Baghdad pharmacist said the communists will eventually emerge from the shadows into the political arena.
“We made an art of walking between the raindrops and coming out dry,” he said.