Public Wake for Bomb Victim Reflects New Status of Long-Persecuted Party
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 29, 2004; Page A16
BAGHDAD, Jan. 28 -- The funeral canopy stretched nearly a full block in front of Yasser Aboud's house in a rundown Shiite Muslim district of the capital. All day a stream of mourners came and went: men in Arab robes and business suits and greasy work pants, greeting one another soberly and sitting awhile under the tent to sip tea, smoke cigarettes and gossip quietly.
But even in grief, Monday's gathering was a political celebration of sorts. Two men were dead, victims of a terrorist bombing Jan. 22 at a neighborhood office of the Iraqi Communist Party. But for the first time after decades of furtive, underground life, party members could mourn their dead proudly, in public and by name.
"In Saddam's time we would never dare have an open funeral," said Khalaf Ashrak, 52, a longtime friend of Aboud, recalling the repression of Communists by President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Gesturing around the crowded tent and pointing out prominent guests, Ashrak said: "His government tried to crush us for 40 years. Usually when they killed one of us, they never gave back the body, and sometimes they even made us pay for the bullets."
The comeback of the Iraqi Communists is one of the most remarkable political stories of the post-Hussein era. Once ruthlessly persecuted, the party has rapidly reemerged, this time as an influential, moderating force in national life.
The general secretary, Hamid Majid Mousa, 61, sits on Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council. The party, once a network of underground cells in which no one used his real name, has opened dozens of branch offices across the country. In Baghdad, the party's dingy, smoke-filled headquarters hums with purpose and energy, as members attend seminars, cultural events and meetings on current events.
Grim reminders of the past are near at hand, from the oversized portraits of two top party leaders assassinated in 1949 and 1963 to the grizzled comrades sunning themselves on the wall out front, some of whom have limbs mangled from torture or badly healed bullet wounds under their shirts.
The party still has enemies, as evinced by the bomb at its New Baghdad branch office that killed Aboud and another member, Shaker Jassem Ajeel. Mousa and other officials blamed former members of Hussein's intelligence and security apparatus, but conservative Shiite Muslim groups also harbor long-standing enmity toward the Communists, and a party office in the southern city of Nasiriyah was torched by a Shiite mob last summer.
But the message of the born-again Communists -- once a textbook pro-Soviet party that spouted anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist rhetoric and followed a rigid internal hierarchy -- is a call for democracy, unity, tolerance and human rights in the postwar era.
"There have been some changes in our thinking," said Mousa, who joined the party at 16, studied in Bulgaria and survived a lifetime of infighting, repression and shifting relations between Moscow and Baghdad. "We still believe in socialism, but what matters most now is for Iraq to become a stable, free and democratic society, where all views, all parties and all religions are respected."
Perhaps more than any other group in Iraq, the Communists have learned the lessons of dogmatism and top-down control. Not only did the Soviet Union collapse while they were being tortured and killed for the cause, but Hussein -- who hated the Communists and feared them as rivals for power -- borrowed Marxist ideas and Stalinist methods to build a personal dictatorship in the guise of a socialist revolution.
There was some violence on the Communists' part as well, especially in the 1950s, when the party had ties to the government. And later, their nominal backers in the Kremlin made deals with Hussein despite his repeated brutal quashing of the Iraqi party.
Today, thousands of rank-and-file members remain devoted to a noble vision of socialism. Party activists, many from modest backgrounds, expressed fervent adherence to egalitarian, collective notions that might seem passé in the hard-eyed, competitive ethos of the modern global era.
Moreover, despite the hostility of conservative Shiite groups, the party has a sizable number of Shiite members -- as well as Sunnis and Kurds -- and its officials assert that the party is not atheistic.
Both members killed last week were Shiites, and their well-attended wakes were held in one of Baghdad's poorest and most radicalized Shiite districts.
Indeed, the theme that continues to unite and motivate Iraqi Communists is the idea that any person, no matter how humble or irrelevant to the elite, can aspire to high ideals and a meaningful role in bringing change to society.
"Our party stands for what is morally right and self-denying. For us the word 'me' does not exist," said Abu Liqaa, 40, a construction worker at Aboud's funeral. "It may sound idealistic, but we still want to build a new man and a new society. This is something that lives and moves in our bodies like blood."
The party's emergence from the shadows into the spotlight has been rapid and smooth, with leaders like Mousa included in major Iraqi political forums and viewed as a moderate force by U.S. officials here.
In recent weeks, as Iraqi cities have been swept by public unrest over lack of jobs and services, the Communists have refrained from participating in street rallies, some of which have turned violent. Two weeks ago, in the southern city of Kut, rioters converged on government buildings, throwing grenades and rocks at foreign troops until they were pacified by Islamic clerics with bullhorns. Meanwhile, officials at the local Communist Party office shook their heads in concern and dismay.
"We warned this would happen from the beginning if the Americans did not hand over power quickly," said Ali Ikabi, 50, a university professor who heads the Kut party branch. "The economic situation here is desperate, but this is partly a legacy of dictatorship. We disagree with the demonstrations, but we have told the Americans our views and we are ready to be of service if we can help."
Despite their newfound niche in Iraq's political mainstream, though, party members readily slip into the rhetoric of persecution. At Aboud's funeral reception, which lasted all this week, friends and relatives spoke of him as a martyr called Abu Jamal who gave his life for the Communist cause -- two decades after losing one eye under torture by Hussein's interrogators.
"The party was my brother's life, his air, his earth, his soul," said Mohsin Aboud, 50, as he greeted well-wishers at the wake Monday. "Jamal suffered, and now he is gone, but he is not dead and he will never die. He is part of a great struggle in our society, and his son and grandsons will carry it on in his place."