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The Left’s Man in the New Iraq

The war in Iraq has always been a war against fascism, a liberation war for democratic freedom -- even a left-wing war. Or so I have always thought. All over the world there are people who consider themselves liberals or left-wingers who think the same and who have backed the war in one fashion or another, even while criticizing President Bush’s way of conducting it.

I have to admit that quite a few other people take a different view and look on the war as a strictly right-wing adventure -- a war for oil, or for imperialism, or for Republican interests. We liberal and left-wing supporters of the war have had a pretty hard time of it as a result.

But 10 days ago in Iraq, the left-wing hawks achieved a genuinely impressive success. A new government took office in Baghdad, led by a prime minister, Iyad Allawi. But directly beneath him is a deputy prime minister who has been selected with the approval of not just the United States government, as you may have been led to believe, but quite a few disparate political factions around the country.

The new deputy prime minister is Barham Salih, a Kurd. Salih is, by all accounts, hugely popular in the Kurdish provinces -- the kind of person who, in a truly democratic Iraq, would rise to a lofty position of power. But something else: He is one of the heroes of the democratic left in the Middle East.

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Salih is a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which he joined in 1976, when it was still an underground organization. He was persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, which arrested him twice; he was singled out by Ansar al-Islam, an Al Qaeda affiliate, which tried to assassinate him (and did assassinate his bodyguards).

Yet he persisted and became premier of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, presiding over the growth of what is, by all accounts, an authentically liberal democratic culture, or at least the beginnings of such a thing, in that region of Iraq.

In January 2003, before the war began, Salih delivered a speech in Rome to the council of the Socialist International that was perhaps the single most important statement of the left-wing hawk position. He pleaded with the democratic left all over the world to support the impending invasion, comparing it to the liberation of Italy by the Allies in 1944. The Italians had suffered under fascism for 20 years, he said, and the invasion of 1944 was their liberation. Iraqis, he said, had suffered under the Baath Party and its “aggressive, racist ideology” for 35 years and needed the same kind of help.

Five months ago, in Madrid, Salih addressed another meeting of the Socialist International. What follows are excerpts from his speech:

“Most Iraqis see the moral and political imperative for the war of liberation as overwhelming. For many of us inside Iraq, who experienced firsthand Saddam’s WMDs, the debate about lack of evidence of WMDs is difficult to understand.

“For us in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction are not about dry accounting. They have been conventional tools of repression by Saddam.

“Ethnic cleansing began in Iraq in 1963, when the Baath Party sized power. Around a million people have been displaced, mostly Kurds but also Turkmens and Assyrian Christians. The fascist regime of Saddam has cost the lives of at least 2 million Iraqis. Four million more have been forced to become refugees. So far, more than 170 mass graves have been uncovered throughout Iraq. These mass graves should vindicate the morality of this war of liberation.

“I, as a Kurd and as an Iraqi, I know, perhaps better than others, that war is devastating and should be questioned. However, for us, this war was to end the brutal war that has been waged against the people of Iraq ....

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“Despite images on Western television screens depicting Iraq as a brutal calamity, most Iraqis, who have known nothing but the murder and mayhem of Saddam’s rule, the last 10 months have seen astonishing progress toward the creation of a free society. This is the first time in their history, possibly in the entire history of the Islamic Middle East, that people are able to engage in a wide-ranging political debate over the future of their country.”

I can understand why many left-wingers and liberals all over the world have not responded to these speeches. It is because when they open their ears to the Iraq debate, they hear the off-putting voice of George W. Bush and do not hear the voices of the democratic left in Iraq.

But let us listen. This is a war for democracy, not for oil. An anti-fascist war. It is a war that, for the moment at least, has brought to power, as deputy prime minister, a genuinely admirable figure in the struggle for liberty in the Middle East. That man asks for our solidarity. He deserves to have it.

Paul Berman is the author of “Terror and Liberalism.” Salih’s full speech is at www.puk.org. The translation has been corrected slightly by the author for clarity.

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