50 years ago I was in Basra undertaking my National service.
Although Iraq was only two years away from its 1958 revolution, it was seen as a quiet posting. We moved about and mixed freely.
It was only as I left to be demobbed that signs of social unrest were emerging. Iraq’s Monarchical Regime was a client of Britain and our invasion of Suez did not play well.
By that time, I was in a camp 50 miles east of Baghdad which was then called Habbaniya. It is close to Fallujah. I was waiting to be flown home. The BBC (as relayed over the camp tannoy) told us that only a handful of military advisers were present in Iraq. In reality there were 3,000 of us at this one camp alone, which had a considerable aerial strike capacity which I feared could be drawn upon in the Suez conflict.
Those of us who were homeward bound were due to fly out over Syria. Permission to travel over their air space was, however, withdrawn when Britain moved to invade Egypt. We finally set off via Ankara in Turkey. At that time, all I ever saw of Iraqi Kurdistan was from the air.
It was earlier experiences in Baghdad and Basra which had a lifelong impact upon me.
When I initially arrived in Iraq early in 1955, I travelled by rail from Baghdad to Basra. The train stopped at the southern outskirts of Baghdad in the middle of what seemed a biblical scene - I hadn’t yet come across the Koran.
I was looking out on what is called a Sarifa. A living area where everything was made out of dried mud. There were mud walls, mud dwellings, no vegetation and open sewers running down mud streets. Everyone seemed to be outdoors crawling over this huge pile of mud.
Although the scene was by no means as bad as the ones we now see on our TV screens from Palestine and the Lebanon, it was a big shock to an inexperienced teenager in a pre-TV era.
My duties included regular visits to the docks and railway yards, where I always saw exploited labourers carrying huge old fashioned refrigerators and other massive weights on their deeply bent backs.
These experiences were a shock to my religious and political assumptions. I was an active Methodist and an inactive Labourite at the time. But I was soon into long discussions with Corporal Murphy who was an ex-Catholic with “atheist” on his locker where we had to designate our religion.
He introduced me to the works of James Joyce, whilst a bookshop in Basra soon became my own form of Mecca. I ordered the New Statesman on rice paper and the Indian Bookseller even had a supply of Rationalist Press Association books, which were given an added edge when the local Anglican Vicar damned them from the pulpit.
It was only when I ordered Das Kapital that this was blocked by the local Chief of Police. It was my first indication that the Iraqi Communist Party was a threat to the regime.
By 1956 I had turned to humanism and socialism and have not shifted since. It was a highly educative period. Khrushchev made his revelations about Stalin. The Suez and Hungarian crises overlapped. Tony Crosland published his “Future of Socialism” and GDH Cole countered in the pages of my New Statesman.
But nothing fed my emotions and my mind more than the daily sight of the condition of the Iraqi Working Class. Excessive toil, poverty and exploitation existed in the midst of growing oil wealth.
My recent return to Iraq was in part a mirror image of my experiences 50 years earlier. This time I only saw Basra and Baghdad from the air, landing in Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time.
I did, however, have past links with the area.
In 1991 the Kurds had fled into the mountains following a massive assault by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Many starved, were frozen and died. It is currently a matter at the centre of the trail of Saddam Hussein and others, including the infamous Chemical Ali.
The British public responded fully to an appeal by “British Aid for the Kurds”, who collected huge quantities of foodstuffs, medical supplies, blankets and clothing. This easily outmatched the Conservative Government’s efforts.
Working with Lorraine Goodchild, their organiser, I successfully campaigned at Westminster for the Conservative Government to air lift these materials to Iran for forwarding to the Kurds.
A consequence of the Baathist attacks of 1991 was the introduction of the no-fly zone over Northern Iraq, producing the withdrawal of Saddam’s forces.
At Sulaimaniyah, I visited the scene of a key conflict between the Kurds and Saddam’s troops at the blood-stained Red House which had been a Baathist military centre and a mass torture chamber in which 5,000 died in hideous circumstances.
From 1991 onwards (whilst overcoming a period of internal conflict), the Kurds set about dismantling Saddam Hussein’s oppressive structure and laws, whilst building a new life in the region.
Kirkuk and Mosul are still problem areas and even the monument to those gassed at Halabja has been destroyed , but generally at centres such as Erbil the Kurds maintain their own security and run their own democratic, economic and social structures. Yet they are keen to co-operate with and influence official developments in the rest of Iraq.
It is an area with considerable potential in oil, hydro-electricity, building, tourism and raw material extraction.
But it needs our urgent help and involvement.
I visited the area with Labour Friends of Iraq and British Trade Unionists. We met workers in factories, their homes, on a Trade Union training course funded by Unison and in their capacity as Trade Union activists.
The Kurdish Workers’ Federation were our expert hosts and Trade Union leaders flew in from the rest of Iraq. In all we met representatives of over a million organised workers. At our meeting with the wider Trade Union Movement in Erbil, I was presented with a prize possession - a certificate of honorary membership of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.
Outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, Saddam’s Anti-Trade Union Laws still hamper
normal Trade Union activity and a recent decree has even sequestrated Trade Union funds.
After the horrific consequences of the Iraq-Iran War, the Gulf War, Sanctions,
Baathist death squads, invasion and terrorism it is fully time for those active in the wider Labour Movement to link arms with our Iraqi comrades to help them to mobilize, gain proper recognition, negotiate and build for democracy and decency.
It is now easy to assist, whatever position anyone took about the invasion of Iraq and over the question of the continuing presence of British and American troops in that troubled nation.
We only need to turn to a key book recently published by the TUC, entitled “Hadi Never Died : Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Union Movement” by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson. Hadi was a leading Iraqi Trade Unionist who was brutally murdered in Baghdad. I had the privilege of chairing a meeting in the Commons which he had addressed.
At the back of the book there is a guide to three main solidarity contacts in this country - the TUC’s Solidarity Committee, the TUC’s Aid Iraq Appeal and the General Federation of Iraqi Workers. There is also, of course, the group I am active with Labour Friends of Iraq. These avenues are all worthy of support.