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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Left Betrays the Iraqi People by Opposing War

Nick Cohen • 14.01.03

As Tony Blair yesterday reaffirmed his determination to confront Saddam, the Stop The War coalition was able to present an impressive list of celebrities to add glamour to the fight to save Iraq from Anglo-American terror.

Gemma Redgrave, Anita Roddick, Rosie Boycott and Bianca Jagger are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with rough train drivers from Aslef and Marxist-Leninists from the Socialist Workers Party. Everyone who is anyone from the soft-headed centre to the anti-democratic Left is there. All are welcome - except the people in whose name the party is being thrown: the Iraqis.

Tens of thousands might have been invited. London remains a great exile city, and for more than 20 years Kurds and Arabs have fled from Saddam's persecution to sanctuary in Britain. Yet not one of the 50 Iraqi dissident groups that met in the capital last month to organise the struggle for national liberation has been asked to join the coalition. Nor would they be thanked if they tried to gatecrash.

The anti-war movement is a private party. It has proved to be a remarkably fastidious friend of suffering peoples of the Middle East, and its doors are always open to non-Iraqi Muslims - but it's not at home to Muslims from Iraq.

As far as I can work out from the coalition's membership list, only two Iraqi organisations - one calling itself the Iraqi Network for Human Rights and a second called the Federation of Kurdish Community Organisations - have signed its manifesto. No Iraqi exile I have interviewed has heard of either.

The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi dissidents are an embarrassment to the Left. After enduring misery few of us can imagine, they have discovered that, without foreign intervention, their country won't be freed from a tyrant who matches Stalin in his success in liquidating domestic opponents. Only America can intervene. Therefore an American invasion offers the possibility of salvation.

There's a damnable logic to this that no amount of wriggling can escape. If you say to the Iraqi opposition that America is very selective in its condemnation of dictatorships, they shrug and ask why Iraqis should care. If you say that Iraq shouldn't be liberated from Saddam until Palestinians are liberated from Israeli occupation, they ask if the converse also applies. (It never does, incidentally.) They confront the anti-war movement with the disconcerting thought that there are worse things in the world than George W Bush and American imperialism, and Saddam Hussein and his prison state are among them.

To right-thinking, Left-leaning people, such thoughts are not merely disconcerting but unthinkable. Oppressed peoples are meant to confirm the prejudices of their (usually white) betters, not raise awkward dilemmas. The honest course would be to say that the price of peace is a continuation of Saddam's oppression. But rather than make a brutal argument that would lose it the moral high ground, the anti-war movement prefers to deal with the Iraqi opposition by ignoring it.

The absence of honourable engagement is allowing the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to get away with murder. Journalists demanded yesterday that Tony Blair tell us if Britain would go to war without UN authorisation. There's a tougher question: what kind of Iraq would British troops be risking their lives for if there is a war?

In Washington, the future of Iraq is ferociously contested. The names of the competitors on either side of the argument prove that you should never believe easy political labels. To the surprise of the simple-minded, Donald Rumsfeld and his supposedly "far-Right" friends in the Pentagon support democracy, while the CIA and the supposedly "moderate" Colin Powell at the State Department hint that they want to replace Saddam with a more compliant dictator.

Mr Blair seems to be with Gen Powell. Ever since Britain created Iraq in the 1920s, the Foreign Office has wanted a kind of apartheid rule by a monarch or dictator from the Arab Sunni minority. The majority of Iraqis, the Shia, have been kept down, along with the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north.

At no point has Mr Blair said he wants dictatorship to end if Saddam is overthrown. The organisers of last month's conference of exiles in London asked the Foreign Office if Mr Blair or Jack Straw would address the assembled delegates. Zaab Sethna, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), told me the men at the FO "laughed in our faces". Our leaders didn't want to waste their time on Iraqi democrats.

The moral disgrace of the liberal-Left wing of the anti-war movement lies in its failure to put pressure on the Prime Minister to uphold the values it pretends to believe in. The Iraqi opposition had a right to expect support. The alternative it offers to Saddam's secular tyranny is not Islamic theocracy. The INC and the London conference of exiles both want a democratic Iraq that gives a voice to the suppressed Shia; a federal Iraq that allows autonomy for the Kurdish minority; and a secular Iraq that can contain the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.

When I put this programme to my democratic and secular comrades, they turn nasty. I hear that the peoples of Iraq will slaughter each other if Saddam goes; that any US-sponsored replacement will be worse. They may be right, although the second prediction will be hard to meet. What is repulsive is the sneaking feeling that they want the war to be long and a post-Saddam Iraq to be a bloody disaster. They would rather see millions suffer than be forced to reconsider their prejudices.

I expect that some Telegraph readers regard the British Left as good for nothing. In mitigation, I would say that we are world-class nags. If we had taken up the cause of Arab democracy, we would have nagged away until Mr Blair was forced to commit himself for or against liberty.

As it is, the only people who won't be welcome in Baghdad if a free Iraq comes against the odds are the Iraqis' immensely condescending friends in the Stop the War coalition.


Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer. This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph and is carried here with permission from the author.



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

17 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


No Rights For Humans
Anthony McIntyre


The Fight For America's Soul

Julie Brown


The Bloody Streets of New York
Mike Davis


The Left Betrays the Iraqi People by Opposing War
Nick Cohen


Missive To America
Annie Higgins


The Letters page has been updated.


12 January 2003


Political Violence and Questions of Legitimacy
Christina Sherlock


Acquiring Transmission Points
Anthony McIntyre


The Blood Stays on the Blade

Seaghán Ó Murchú


Identity Under Siege
Paul de Rooij


No War On Iraq
Davy Carlin


Picket In Support of Human Rights Activists




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