Archive article from The Socialist Issue 351
Interview with Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana
Eyewitness In Iraq
Socialism 2004 will open with a rally on the theme of "The Price of Occupying Iraq: A World in Turmoil".
Amongst the speakers will be Haifa Zangana, an exiled Iraqi novelist and activist, who was jailed and tortured for her political opposition to Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime.
She spoke to the socialist this week.
The socialist: I believe that you have recently visited Iraq for the first time since you were exiled in the 1970s. From what you saw there, do you think that Donald Rumsfeld's prediction that the occupying forces would be welcomed as "liberators" has been borne out?
HZ: No, this was always a myth. Most Iraqis were desperate to get rid of the regime but that doesn't mean that they accept occupation as the only alternative.
The people are hostile to the occupying forces - they feel humiliated. The small number of people who initially believed in these promises of freedom and democracy have nearly all changed their minds by now.
Today, most Iraqis welcome the idea of resistance. For the first few months, people were prepared to give the Governing Council the benefit of the doubt, but now they see the only solution is to end the occupation.
So you think that the plans of the US to transfer sovereignty to a new Iraqi administration based around the present Governing Council is unlikely to change conditions on the ground?
HZ: The essence of the whole structure is dictated by the US. The new ministers are there to represent the interests of the occupying forces. Whether they're called coalition forces or multinational forces really doesn't make much difference to Iraqis. They still face a daily struggle to survive.
Electricity, for example, is still a problem. Last week, Baghdad suffered three days where people had no electricity whatsoever - in temperatures of over 40íC, and it's not even summer! The problems are horrendous for ordinary people.
The ministers of the 'interim government' are living in this safe cocoon - the Green Zone - they are completely out of touch. The only time they leave, they are driven in an American car, have private contractors as bodyguards, and never speak to ordinary Iraqis.
It is sometimes suggested that one possible exit strategy would be to put the 'reconstruction' of Iraq under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. As a vociferous critic of the UN sanctions regime, which resulted in the deaths of over a million Iraqis, don't you feel that the UN has forfeited credibility in the eyes of Iraqis?
HZ: Iraqis would accept the bad rather than the worse. The UN is not independent and in the end is probably only following the line of the US and Britain. But the faces of UN peacekeepers would be more welcome in the streets than American soldiers pointing their machine guns at people, shooting at random. The UN is still the best alternative at the moment, provided of course that it is not to be used to legitimise the occupation - as happened with the Security Council resolutions - rather than working with the Iraqi people themselves.
Much of the rhetoric used to justify the occupation concerned the need to make the world a safer place, and reduce the threat of terror attacks. Why do you think this objective is failing so spectacularly?
HZ: The fighting inside Iraq has been provoked by the presence of occupying armies. Most of the fighters are not "terrorists", or al Qa'ida, but fighting to liberate themselves. The US has behaved so arrogantly, and doesn't give a damn about people, so they shouldn't be surprised when a desperate people try to fight back and defend their basic human rights, their lives and their country. This is bound to lead to violence.
And what do you make of the argument that the withdrawal of troops would invite a bloodbath, as rival ethnic and religious groups clamour for control? Is this inevitable? Or do you sense a space opening up for building unity around common political objectives?
HZ: The British forces used the same logic in the 1920s and 30s to defend their presence in the region. It's nonsense! They said the minute we leave the country, Iraqis will start killing each other. The leaders today really should sit down and read a few pages of Iraqi history. The British tried to impose divisive local regimes, but until 1958 the Iraqi people were able to unite in common opposition to foreign rule.
Hasn't hostility to US imperialism also manifested itself, in part, in the growth of support for right-wing political Islam, with potentially repressive political consequences, for example for the position of women inside Iraq?
HZ: I had been warned when I went back that this was indeed happening inside Iraq. But in January I visited some religious places wearing exactly what I would wear over here. Security in general was high, but I did not feel oppressed by Islamic movements or religious clerics.
On the contrary, some of the clerics I met were more 'democratic' than American people working for the US administration! I don't have fears from this angle. Women in Iraq have achieved a lot in Iraq over the years. Iraq is a secular country in general.
We have more women engineers relative to the population than any European country, for example, and women held high-ranking positions even under Saddam's regime. Women are not weak in Iraq. They are powerful, and their abilities are acknowledged in society.
Public opinion in this country has undergone a marked shift against the occupation following the publication of the pictures of torture inflicted at the hands of US troops in Abu Ghraib prison. As a former inmate of that jail under Saddam, what was your reaction to those disclosures?
HZ: It is terrible - it brought back very bad memories. I could identify with those people who were being abused and humiliated. I was worried that they would be unable to talk about it.
For women, especially in our society, it is incredibly difficult to admit that you have been raped, abused and humiliated. Being unable to speak about it means that you continue to suffer. They struggle to come to terms with the fact that the shame is that of the torturer, not their shame.
This has not just been happening in Abu Ghraib. There are too many other prisons, not only in Baghdad but also in Basra and elsewhere. The whole country has been turned into Abu Ghraib. It is a deliberate, systematic policy: they have trained people how to do it.
From day one of the occupation, they were putting boots on people's heads until their necks almost broke. Last year in Falujah we heard of women going to bed at night fully clothed because troops would attack people in their homes at night. But the Iraqi people weren't listened to until these photos came out and people could see for themselves.
You are on record as having voted Labour in both 1997 and 2001, first in hope and then under sufferance. How do you feel about Tony Blair's performance in office now? Would you vote for them again?
HZ: I am really starting to regret that! I definitely won't vote for him again.
We were promised all sorts of things, like an "ethical foreign policy"! We were promised a change. It has been one lie after another. It is a shame that Labour has lost its way.
We need a real change not just in foreign policy, but in the running of the country as a whole. Tony Blair has led the country into a complete disaster with this war. It was very foolish.