While both were attending an international conference in Asturias, Spain, this June, Iraqi author and activist Haifa Zangana granted an interview to Workers World managing editor John Catalinotto. Zangana’s novels include “Women on a Journey,” “Through Vast Halls of Memory” and “Keys to a City.” She also wrote “City of Widows” about the occupation.
Haifa Zangana in Madrid,
WW photo: John Catalinotto
What was the role of women in the anti-colonial movement and your own involvement in politics in Iraq? How is this reflected in your writing? How did the 1990s sanctions impact on women and on all Iraqis?
Iraqi women have been among the most liberated of their gender in the Middle East. They have a long history of political activism and social participation since the 19th century, having taken part in the struggle against colonial domination and in the fight for national unity, social justice and legal equality throughout the 20th century. In fact, UNICEF reported in 1993 that “rarely do women in the Arab world enjoy as much power and support as they do in Iraq.”
I was no exception.
I was a member of the Iraqi Communist Party-Central Leadership (CL), and was imprisoned in 1972 (in Qasr Al Nihaya first, then in Abu Ghraib) for my role in armed struggle while I was still a student at the school of pharmacy at Baghdad University.
The CL, which emerged in the mid-1960s, was a revolutionary faction in the Iraqi Communist Party. It opposed the ICP policies of collaborating with governments associated with the policies of the Soviet Union.
In the late 1960s, the CL became a powerful group within the ICP which advocated armed struggle in an effort to raise the masses, inspired by the Cuban revolution and the struggle in Vietnam. The CL fought for self-rule for Iraqi Kurds within a democratic Iraq and demanded an end of the occupation of Palestine.
I left Iraq in 1974 to work with the PLO in Syria and Lebanon and at the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon , I moved to London. After I left Iraq, my family had to report regularly to the security office to prove that they had no contact with me.
Despite my being an opponent of the Baath regime, I always maintained the fact that it did not represent Iraqi people and Iraqis should not be punished for crimes committed by the regime. That’s why I was actively opposing the brutal sanctions or the “siege” as we called it, which was established by United Nations Resolution 661 of Aug. 6, 1990, and lasted until the invasion in 2003.
The siege touched every aspect of Iraqi life, causing death, disease, rapid economic decline and nearly an end to any sort of human development. Unemployment increased, and people could not buy food or medicine. Health care and academic salaries declined from an average $200 monthly before the siege to $3 to $10 during it. In order to survive, Iraqis had to sell every material thing of value.
By the mid-1990s, half a million children had died, a crime considered by many to be genocide. When confronted with such statistics in 1996, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., [told Leslie Stahl in an interview on “60 Minutes”] that “the price was worth it” to change the Saddam regime.
Sanctions had a devastating effect on people’s health, particularly on that of children and women. Iraqi scientists and doctors conducted considerable research into the causes of the unusual increase in cancer cases in the aftermath of the 1991 bombardment of depleted uranium by the U.S.-U.K., and again after its repetitive use during the “shock and awe” attack of 2003. Their conclusive evidence indicates that the use of DU is the cause of this new epidemic of cancer, though it has been met with complete denial by officials in both countries.
The suffering of Iraqi women extended from the physical to the psychological. Fifty-seven percent of Iraqi women suffered from depression, insomnia, weight loss and headaches due to shock caused by military bombardment, the death of their children, anxiety and uncertainty about the future. (UNIFEM, 2004)
To give you an example of the brutality of the sanctions: on Dec. 6, 1995, I sent an A4 padded envelope to my nieces and nephews in Mosul city. It contained one pencil case, three erasers, three sharpeners, six fountain pens, two markers, one glue stick and two Biros. It was marked “gift for children.”
The envelope was returned, stamped: “Due to international sanctions against Iraq, we are not able to forward your packet.” I was told to contact the British Department of Trade and Industry for further information.
Invasion and occupation awakens resistance
The George W. Bush administration promised to bring democracy and a better life to Iraqis. What has been the real impact of the U.S.-British invasion, the long occupation and the so-called surge?
The 2003 military invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought the people of Iraq nothing but loss of human life, destruction and diminishing hope in democracy. For over seven years now, they have been subjected to collective punishment, Israeli style.
They are often seen as terrorists’ facilitators. Therefore, if the U.S.-Iraqi puppet regime makes gains in security, for the people it means pre-dawn house raids, arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, killing by mercenaries called security employees and car bombs in crowded markets. Daily blasts continue to occur in Baghdad, Salah ad Din, Najaf, Anbar and Ninevah. Fear of death, planned or accidental, permeates society to the degree of paralyzing it.
The highly publicized “success of the surge” was preceded by a major population shift and ethnic cleansing. Previously, religiously mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad became homogenized Sunni or Shi’ite Muslim enclaves. Thus, the road was paved for the occupation forces to draw the new map of sectarian-divided Baghdad.
Furthermore, the surge has scarred Baghdad with barriers, checkpoints and walls. There are now around 1,400 checkpoints and over 50 areas divided by concrete walls in Baghdad alone. Every wall has one entry checkpoint and one exit, boxing closely linked communities into ghettos and gated communities.
These walls are called “security walls,” from inside the Green Zone. However, most Iraqis call them the “occupation walls,” which have evoked comparisons to the apartheid wall built by the Israelis dividing Palestinians along the length of the West Bank.
Building segregation walls and destroying bridges mean that hardly any mixed religious, ethnic areas would exist, enforcing the policy of divide and conquer. Walls have an immense impact on Iraqis’ daily life, shredding off the social fabric of Baghdad and dismembering Iraq.
The walls have been a way of emptying the streets and the country, in tandem with forced displacements of about a quarter of the population, sharpshooting by snipers perched in rotation for months atop buildings in key areas, and car bombs in markets to fulfill that role.
Iraqi women have lost all they had achieved as activists before the invasion, and they comprise thousands of the 650,000 casualties-and-climbing since mid-2006. By mid-2007, one in eight Iraqis had left their homes to become refugees, with up to 50,000 people leaving their homes each month.
UNHCR [the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] has said the exodus was the largest long-term population movement since the displacement of the Palestinians after the creation of Israel in 1948. The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates that two-thirds of the displaced are women and children, often living in female-headed households.
The Iraqi refugee catastrophe that only exploded in the media in early 2007 is the latest visible facet of the collapse of the U.S. project in Iraq, which includes the U.S. Army military causalities, the exposure of systematic torture of prisoners and atrocities against civilians, and the escalating economic, political and environmental costs of these regional strategies of the U.S.
The forced displacements of two million Iraqis inside the country and another two million in neighboring countries was, in 2006, followed by gruesome atrocities committed by murder squads and militias, which coincided with the occupation’s quest for an alternative way to ensure U.S. domination following its failure to subdue the country. The new strategy is based on fragmenting the population into manageable segments to be dealt or dispensed with.
In seven years of occupation, the U.S. has moved from publicly opposing religious forces in the Arab world and advocating modern secular “model democracy” in Iraq, to open reliance on sectarian Islamist forces, a stark indication that it has failed to find any other social base for their new colonial domination.
The U.S. has tried to justify this failure by claiming that the move to democracy initiated by the liberation exposed deep conflicts in Iraqi society that had been covered up by the previous dictatorships. Unheard of forms of violence, resulting in immense suffering for all Iraqis, is readily ascribed to sectarianism.
We are being told repeatedly that the main story in Iraq is that Iraqis are killing Iraqis by the hundreds each day, and that the main question is whether it has yet become a sectarian civil war or not, and more recently: “Why do they hate each other?” Blaming the victims has become the widely accepted rationalization for foreign troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely.
Resistance regains strength in 2010
What are the roots of the Iraqi Resistance? How is this resistance developing now? Is it unifying? How is the fight against the U.S. occupiers continuing, as we get no news of U.S. casualties?
Across the country strands of resistance to occupation have developed, ranging from armed battalions to peaceful, political and communal acts of dissent, increasing in extent and intensity. Many women are a part of this movement, providing direct and indirect support.
Remember, armed resistance against occupation is a right under international law. And this resistance movement was born not only of ideological, religious and patriotic convictions, but also as a response to the reality of the brutal actions of this occupation and its administration.
Iraq became the symbol of the U.S. administration’s failure to achieve the promised swift victory. The U.S. information machine covered up their failures by portraying the slowly mounting armed resistance as militias in neighborhoods fighting each other. Death squads became active in throwing scores of corpses daily in various neighborhoods and then blaming them on sectarian motives. Therefore, the “civil war” became the theme of “Operation Information.”
The trajectory of armed resistance is of a rapidly rising number of daily attacks in tandem with the presence of U.S .troops. The Brooking Institution Iraq Index has the numbers climbing from up to 50 attacks per day in the first half of 2005, then to about 170 in mid-2007. The main categories listed in the U.S. casualties are the IEDs, rocket attacks, car bombs, grenades and attacks on helicopters in addition to “other,” which may mean direct firefights.
The U.S. responded by escalating its clandestine operations fanning sectarian and tribal conflicts as a means to weaken the resistance. Then there were changes in the U.S. policies, starting with the signing of 200 local ceasefire agreements, which ended in the Awakening Groups, with declarations of withdrawals, and secret approaches to some of the resistance groups.
The number of attacks started to decline since the U.S. Army increased its use of missile strikes by unmanned Predator drones, the military became confined to military bases. When they went on patrol, the U.S. troops were well protected by Iraqi military. Hence, fatalities among Iraqi military increased.
The Brookings numbers are down to about 40 attacks per day on average in 2008, about 15 per day in 2009. There is a rise lately with more attacks in Baghdad, Mosel and Diyala, while Anbar, Tamim, Salahuddin and Basra average two attacks per day. Brookings does not give details about all the provinces, but mortar attacks have been reported in all southern provinces as well.
The icasualties.org website gives official numbers of U.S. fatalities, which rose to 961 in 2007, then declined to 150 last year. This year the average fatalities among the U.S. military are about six per month. As for the physically wounded, the ratio remains about one death to about six or seven wounded; in total, 4,700 dead to over 31,000 wounded.
The figure’s decline still shows that the Iraq War is continuous. Occupation always calls naturally for resistance, a principle accepted by international law and moral responsibility. The sectarian/ethnic politics do not change this basic fact.
As for attempts to unify the Resistance’s factions, on June 1, 2009, 13 Iraqi resistance groups elected Dr. Harith al-Dari, secretary general of the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), as a political representative in any future negotiations with the occupation.
Asked about the plan the Resistance will pursue, al-Dari, in an interview conducted by Al-Shuruq Tunisian newspaper in June 2009, said: “Our plan is to continue to resist the occupation by any legitimate means possible as dictated by divine religions and the laws of man until we liberate our country. The Resistance arose to liberate Iraq, to ensure the unity and integrity of Iraq as a homeland and as a people, to protect the identity of Iraq, its natural resources, and its international boarders that the Occupation has squandered and exposed to dangers. Iraq belongs to all its citizens, all its components, and all its sects.”
It is worth mentioning here that the various factions of the Resistance, though not totally united, have never been fighting each other. Their enemy has been and remains the occupation.
How has your continuing activity opposing the occupation affected your life as a novelist? What do you see as your next steps?
I have not written any fiction, not one word, since the war and occupation in 2003. A sterile, dark silence extends its shadow over the imaginary. The cruel reality of occupation has turned writing fiction into a meaningless act. I feel I am surrounded by death, barbed-wire fences of double standards.
I miss literary writing. I miss words and the joy of living in the imaginary with my fictional characters. Sometimes, when not writing about the plight of Iraqis under occupation or attending the aza’a [memorial] of friends and relatives who have been killed, slaughtered, or gone missing in Iraq, I dream of writing a sequel to my last novel, “Women on a Journey.”