A new kind of dictatorship

The editor-in-chief of the opposition <em>al-Mada</em> newspaper recalls the years of exile and how disillusionment set in after the 2003 invasion, and expresses his fears for freedom of the press.

After 30 years or so of roaming in exile, moving from Lebanon to Cyprus, then Damascus, Syria, and landing at last in London, I returned to Iraq just two years ago. A decade earlier, it had seemed as if it would never be possible for a dissident like myself to make such a return to Baghdad. I just wanted to resettle in Baghdad, the city where I had the best years of my young life, four at the university and eight working in the non-state media for Tariq al-Shaab, a leftist daily newspaper that was shut down by the Saddam Hussein regime in 1979.

I still recall the day in July 1980 when I had to flee Baghdad in a coach travelling to Syria. From that moment, Baghdad became merely an image and memory. My second encounter with the city occurred a few weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Seeing my home again should have been a source of joy. In reality, it was a shock.

Baghdad was in ruins after three wars and 25 years of a brutal dictatorship. When I got back to London after that saddening visit, friends asked how I had found Baghdad. I answered: “The Baghdad I left was a glamorous woman in the heyday of her youth; now she is an aged creature on her deathbed.”

I imagined that Baghdad would rejuvenate itself within a few years. Like many fellow exiles, I thought the presence of international forces led by the US would help restore normal conditions in Iraq. Now, ten years on, it seems that Iraq will require another ten years to recover, given the carnage it has witnessed over the past decade.

The sectarian civil war that erupted in 2006 stretched well into 2008 and continues today by other means, in the form of a sharp struggle between the various political factions. Demonstrations against the government in the western, mostly Sunni Arab parts of the country are ongoing. After the invasion, the United States and its allies, notably the UK, initiated a flawed political process that was never going to suit Iraq.

In the post-Saddam restructuring, power was to be distributed along communal lines, reducing Iraq to three blocs – Shias, Sunnis and Kurds – with each bloc represented according to its relative demographic weight. The Sunnis did not accept this and boycotted the US- and UK-led political process.

For years, the occupying forces could not find anyone with any weight to represent the Sunnis and the Sunni boycott led to marginalisation. Some opted for insurgency, at a very high price. As the Sunni politicians who agreed to take part in the political process had little influence among their constituents, the Shias and Kurds, backed by the US/UK alliance, sought to tighten their grip on the reins of power.

A precarious situation ensued. Leaders of the Shia Islamic parties, who were now in command of a large parliamentary bloc, began to monopolise power and marginalised the rest, including the Kurds. Shia leaders and communities continue to view Sunni representatives in the political process with suspicion, depicting them as Ba’athists, on the grounds that either they were members of the deposed ruling Ba’ath Party or they did business/had interests in common with it. The ruling Shia political leaders act as if Iraq is their private property and deal with the Sunnis and Kurds as minorities to be subsumed under majority rule. It is the same old ethos of Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party. The incumbent Shia leaders do not seem to realise that Iraq is not a unitary state, but rather a federal and decentralised polity. Nor do they seem to realise that not only does democracy ensure majority rule, it also guarantees the rights of minorities.

After the United States occupied Iraq, it started to dismantle state institutions under the pretext of de-Ba’athification. The resulting vacuum led to chaos and rendered the reconstruction of state institutions even more difficult. The Iraqis needed a chance to establish a new and stable state but the US played a damaging role. For instance, it was American diplomats who oversaw the writing of the country’s new constitution, a process that should have been handed over to constitutional jurists. The Sunni representatives refused to participate in the drafting of the legislation or in the referendum to approve it. The Americans applied pressure to speed up the process.

To silence the criticism, the US included a clause in the text of the basic law allowing amendments within six months. A parliamentary committee prepared the required changes but these have never been submitted to the Iraqi parliament.

The loopholes in the constitution were described as a “minefield” by the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, just 15 months ago. The civil war of 2006-2008 was sparked by the explosion of some of these mines, and so were the current demonstrations in the western Sunni provinces. Yet al-Maliki took advantage of the loopholes, shortcomings and vague articles to enhance his personal, extra-constitutional power and to weaken the power of the parliament, the judiciary and independent or civil society bodies.

Ultimately, al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have managed to create a new kind of dictatorship. This is a curse not only to the Sunnis, or the Kurds, or the swaths of Shias, but to the country as a whole.

As an editor and columnist of al-Mada, a critical, oppositional newspaper in Iraq, I am given considerable editorial freedom, and there is certainly no shortage of subjects to cover. I am, however, concerned about the freedom of the press.

Fortunately, a draft anti-media law has now been reversed, much to the relief of my colleagues and peers. Journalism is a dangerous business, and yet the level of hazards is hardly higher than the tension about the car bombs and assassinations that continue to plague the people of Iraq.

Adnan Hussein is the editor-in-chief and deputy director of al-Mada newspaper

US Marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser