Monday, October 23, 2006

Iraq: The Third Big Issue

Twin Divisions

In Britain, our minds are often focussed upon two big issues concerning Iraq. First, should we have been involved in its invasion ? Secondly, should our troops now be withdrawn ?

I will outline where I stand on these matters, before concentrating on a third key concern which I feel should engage the attention of those of us who have involvements in the wider Labour and Trade Union Movement. How significant are equivalent bodies to ours inside Iraq ? What are they aiming for ? And how worthy are they of our support ?

But first let me confront those first two big issues, which I in no way wish to run away from.

(a) First, there is the matter of the invasion

I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a fully fledged way and I stand by the position I adopted. For I was opposed to the invasion whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We now know that he did not hold such weapons and that the argument used for the invasion was spurious. But at the time, I argued that if he had held such weapons then an invasion still wasn’t justified as it would have been a highly dangerous exercise - rather like prodding a mad dog with a stick.

I was also opposed to the invasion whether or not it was sanctioned by the United Nations. For, to me, if the United Nations had been persuaded to back the invasion, that decision would still have been the wrong one. For with or without such backing, the likely consequences (as we have now seen) would be shocking in terms of the loss of life, the internal conflict in Iraq and the impacts in Palestine, the rest of the Middle East and throughout the Muslim World.

Whilst I don’t accept the estimates on post-invasion deaths which have twice emerged in the Lancet, I do recognise that the loss of life in this period from conflict has been (and increasingly is) horrendous and that something like it was predictable back in the period leading up to the invasion.

But those advocating an invasion did put forward a question which the rest of us needed to answer. “What would we do instead to tackle the manifest evils of Hussein’s Regime ?” My answer was that we should have been assisting those brave
people in Iraq who opposed the regime and who struggled to have it replaced by a humane alternative. The internal struggle was the one which should have been in the lead. An article by Mary Kaldor on the Open Democracy web-site on 21.4.05, entitled, Iraq: the wrong war has since spelt out what that option was in a section entitled “Was there an alternative?”

(b) Secondly, there is the matter of what we should now do about British and American troops in Iraq. Should they be withdrawn ? When and how ?

Many assume that if someone opposed the invasion in such a fully fledged way, then they must now and always since the invasion have been in favour of the immediate withdrawal of the troops. This does not, of course, follow either in terms of logic or morality. For there is a countervailing concern.

Terrorist groups and criminal gangs are murdering masses of Iraqi people going about their normal business without such people ever giving meaningful support to “the occupying forces” or to a claimed “puppet regime”. Iraqi troops and police need to have the ability to contain this hideous aggression. American and British troops play a role in helping to build up and to supplement this difficult internal security.

The great problem is that American Forces in particular (but not excluding the British) have been involved in a whole series of actions involving prison abuse, over the top military action and a failure to link with and aid Iraqis who could have helped build the alternative democratic society which Bush and Blair say they seek.

The question then arises as to how much terrorist activity would just fall away if the British and American troops left. And would any such drop in violence be sufficient to ensure relative peace ?

I have always answered this quandary by arguing that the decision on withdrawal should be made by the Iraqi Parliament. I argue this even though I recognise (and below stress) some of the shortcomings of the actions and omissions of the Iraqi Parliament and their Government . For as a Democratic Socialist, I would criticize aspects of decisions made by almost every parliament in the world. That does not mean that I would wish to abolish them !

The Iraqi people did not support the invasion, but they should at least use their new institutions to decide just when and how the troops should leave. All I would suggest is the need for a timetable for withdrawal plus plans for replacements of troops from acceptable Arab and other nations into non Kurdish Iraq, if these are needed. The Iraqi people need to know that Britain and America will be leaving.

But Why Not A Triple Alliance?

I do not wish to draw a line under the above matters, but I do wish to turn our attention to another concern which should be given a much greater priority by the Labour Movement. Furthermore, I would claim that whatever attitude we take on the first two big issues, we should be united on this one.

We should start by asking ourselves if there are forces in Iraq who are striving to advance the values which we share? Namely, those of democracy, civil rights, social justice and a secular State.

In fact there are many such forces, including those who mobilize to achieve a status for women, youths, the maimed and disabled, or for improved hospitals, schools, electricity and other services. But I will concentrate on the organisations I know the best and who seem to me to have a massive potential - Iraqi Trade Unions.

Iraq has a population of 27 million. It is dominated by young people and only 15 million fall within the ages of 14 to 65. Because unemployment is normally said to be in the region of 50%, whilst many women in fundamentalist Muslim areas are discouraged from working outside of their homes; those in steady employment could be as low as 5 million.

Yet over a million people are organised in Trade Unions. Which is likely to be 20% of those who can reasonably be mobilised. In Britain the equivalent figure is 29.1% and we have faced nothing like the traumas and controls experienced by the Iraqi working people over the past 40 years.

When it came to Saddam Hussein’s era, Trade unions were banned in the public sector which accounted for 80% of the workforce, whilst Chemical Ali was put in charge of what was left of Trade Unionism. The latter were what are normally called yellow Trade Unions, under strict and corrupt State domination.

Trade Unions Re-emerge

When Saddam Hussein banned Trade Unions in the public sector in 1987 he stated that workers no longer existed in Iraq, whilst he turned a body called the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU who had had a fine past) into a corrupt State-controlled body for the private sector. It spied on its own members and its offices were used for interrogation and torture.

Yet within a few weeks of the invasion, workers who organised in the docks in Basra took successful strike action to remove an oppressive Baathist Management and to obtain a pay rise. Thirteen separate bodies covering 200,000 members were quickly organised and formed the units of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU).

How was this possible given the Baathist legacy ? As in any revolutionary turn around, it was a mixture of spontaneity and organisation.

Spontaneously, many workers in Iraq knew about the fine history of Trade Unionism in their nation and had an idea that it was needed and was now possible in the circumstances of uncertainty, disruption and confusion created by the invasion. The memory of many martyrs was also held onto firmly by their relatives and friends. Such networks are of great importance in Iraq.

When it came to organisation many activists who managed to survive, had operated in a clandestine fashion throughout the Baathist days and were in touch with comrades who had been driven into exile. Those in exile immediately returned or otherwise helped with the organisational work.

Things happen quickly when spontaneity and organisation are fused.

The Heritage

The pattern of Trade Union history in Iraq is a common one. Workers struggled for reasonable wages and conditions. They opposed Anti-Trade Union Laws. They engaged in strikes which at times had political implications. They struggled for the Labour Movement to be given a central role within their nation.

(a) When imperial interests established Iraq and it was placed under a British Mandate in 1920, we set about exploiting its resources. Railways, ports, cigarette and other factories were built. Whilst in 1927 oil was discovered.

This all led to the establishment of a downtrodden and exploited working class. So it did just what you would expect in such circumstances. The workers organised and industrial action took place in all the areas I mentioned above. The 1920s was also a good time to learn from the actions then being taken by the organised working class in Britain.

(b) Iraqi Trade Unions had a persistent battle with the law (and it is still happening today). When in 1932 Iraq technically became an independent nation, it was still under strong British dominance. It banned Trade Unions in 1936, with the inevitable reaction coming from the bodies it sort to eradicate.

(c) Industrial Action took on an even clearer political content when the Portsmouth Treaty was signed in 1948. This was an update of earlier Anglo-Iraqi Treaties which maintained British controls, including the continuation of air bases as British Crown Territories. I was to be one of the many National Servicemen sent to one of these.

The widespread nature of the 1948 struggle was possible because 16 new Trade Unions were formed between 1944 and 1946, with the Iraqi Communist Party playing a leading role in the conflict.

(d) It wasn’t until the pro-British system was swept aside in a Colonel’s led revolution in 1958 that Britain was finally obliged to leave its air bases. The mass GFTU (later to be subverted by Saddam Hussein) was established with Communists winning all ten seats on its Central Council in open elections.

They then organised a May Day March in Baghdad in 1959, with half a million people joining in out of a population of under 7 million. They were led by their Communist leaders in suits, shirts and ties as the nations leading advocates of establishing a bourgeois democracy as a means of giving the workers their place in the sun.

The March of Progress Murdered and then Reborn.

From 1963 coups and counter coups took place in Iraq until the Baath and finally Saddam Hussein came to take full power. The way the Trade Union Movement was forced into either clandestine activity, exile or was tortured and murdered is shown through the life of Hadi Saleh.

The TUC has produced a fine book entitled Hadi Never Died : Hadi Saleh and the Iraqi Trade Unions by Abdullah Muhsin and Alan Johnson (who is an academic and not the politician). I have already generously drawn details from the book in this article.

In 1969 (a year after a Baathist Coup) and at the age of 20, Hadi was imprisoned for Trade Union and Communist political activity, seriously maltreated and sentenced to death. He remained on death row until 1973 when under an armistice he was released and returned to his employment as a printer and again engaged in Trade Union and political activity.

The armistice arose because the Baath had signed a Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union, especially to obtain arms. But in 1977, Hadi was obliged to flee the country and when in exile linked secretly with clandestine elements in Iraq.

He helped found the Worker’s Democratic Trade Union Movement in 1980. It called a strike at Sulymanyah in the Kurdish area in 1984, involving 4,000. The regime took harsh action and four of the activists were executed.

In 2003 Hadi returned to Iraq on the heels of the invasion. He was at the forefront of the establishment of the IFTU, who I mentioned earlier. He became their International Secretary, travelling widely from his base in Baghdad to develop crucial links with the International Trade Union Movement.

He was brutally murdered in Baghdad in 2005 by terrorists who deliberately target Trade Unionists. His Trade Union records were stolen and information used to seek out others. Some 2,000 of his comrades have been deliberately targeted and murdered, using a variety of sources of information.

Imagine our own Trade Union Movement withstanding such an assault.

I had the privilege of Chairing a meeting for Hadi in the Commons. He was a fine person and his murder came as a deep shock. In fact, in my life he is the only person I have been in such close contact with whom I know was later murdered. So you will imagine my reaction. I was privileged to address his memorial service at the TUC.

Thanks to his groundwork, the Iraqi Trade Union Movement has become a significant
force recognised by the Arab Federation of Trade Unions and working closely with bodies such as the TUC, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the International Labour Office.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The first return to open and free Trade Unions came in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 1991 after Saddam Hussein engaged in a campaign of genocide against the Kurds, who fled to the mountains in the north, a no-fly zone was established and conditions were then created for the Kurds to operate on a fairly autonomous basis.

Although the Kurds had their own period of internal conflict after this, they are now united and Saddam Hussein’s anti-Trade union legislation has bitten the dust, with Trade Unions having full recognition from the Kurdish Regional Government where numbers of Ministers and officials come from their ranks.

Today the Kurdistan Workers Federation has a membership of 200,000. Whilst the Kurdish Teachers’ Union has 100,000 members. Added to these are what are termed civic bodies catering for several tens of thousands. These are organisations with much in common with, say, the MSF section of AMICUS.

Iraqi Kurdistan covers mainly a population of Sunni Kurds, with minorities including Shia Kurds, Turcoman and Assyrians. Together, the area covers from 20 to 25% of Iraq’s population, depending on where we draw the boundaries for the region as the status of Kirkuk has yet to be determined.

When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan in April with Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) and Trade Union officials, I became aware of numbers of factors including the following.

Outside of areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk, it is now reasonably safe to move around thanks to the Kurds operating their own tight security system. These involve regular road checks (where those questioning you can be trusted not to have links with terrorists), with key buildings being protected by huge concrete blocks and by guards.

The economy has characteristics of a command economy, but even the local Communist Party are aware of the need to attract inward investment. But in opening up the economy to the influences of capital, there is a keenness not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There is a building boom taking place covering private housing, rented flats, council housing, university students accommodation and public facilities. Road building, a hydro-electric project and plans for leisure provisions are to the fore. Cement factories proliferate.

But there are plenty of problems to overcome, including petrol shortages in an oil producing nation. This creates a huge black market for petrol smuggled over the borders. Hydro electric extensions are sort to overcome the regular breakdown in supplies. Whilst there is also a great deal of hidden unemployment. We visited a cigarette factory employing 600 workers which had not produced a fag for several years, but which the workers attended full-time in order to be paid.

The views of the Kurds about the invasion and the occupation tend to differ from those of the Arabs elsewhere in Iraq. The only people we spoke to who opposed these measures were those who shared the views of the minority Kurdish Communist Party, who had opposed the invasion and looked for a phased withdrawal of troops. They are, however, as opposed to terrorists tactics as anyone. There is, however, no feeling of being occupied by foreign troops in Iraqi Kurdistan as only 200 American troops are situated there.

Our visit to Iraqi Kurdistan was well publicised in the local media, but we were protected and closely guarded. If we had attempted the same activities in Baghdad then we would soon have been kidnapped. Our hosts from the Kurdistan Workers Federation looked after us well and carefully. They even arranged for us not to miss out on meeting the Trade Union leadership from the rest of Iraq. For eleven of these flew in from Baghdad to meet us in the Kurdish City of Arbil.

Arab Iraq

The IFTU which Hadi Saleh helped to found forms the backbone of the newly established General Federation of Iraqi Workers (GFITU). This body was established to allow for links with other bodies in order to have all the recognised Trade Unions in non-Kurdish Iraq joining together into its own TUC for purposes of affilation to the Arab Federation of Trade Unions. The exception being the large Teachers’ Union, with whom they enjoy close fraternal links.

Today the GFITU covers a membership of some 300,000, with 400,000 in the Teachers’ Union, which covers all education institutions. Apart from terrorists targetting Trade Unionists, these Trade unions face another serious problem which does not operate in Iraqi Kurdistan. The law is against them.

Saddam Hussein’s measure banning Trade Unions in the public sector has not been repealed. Employers are in a position to resort to the Courts and to offialdom to act upon the legal position. This has happened causing Trade Unionism serious problems.

Even if the practicalities on the ground differ from Saddam Hussein’s time and shop floor pressures can pursuade employers in specific circumstances not to make full use of these legal powers, another crippling Government Decree hit the Trade Unions on 8 August 2005. Under the Decree 8750, Trade Union funds can be taken over by the State whilst awaiting proposals on just how the State will allow Trade Unions to function, organise and operate.

The State’s powers to sequest Trade Union funds and their threat of future bans and prescriptions when added to the pre-existing ban on Trade Union activity in the main sector of the economy, place a crippling burden upon the GFITU, its affiliates and the Teachers’ Union.

Considerable efforts are being made by the International Trade Union Movement and especially the TUC to have these restraints on free Trade Unionism removed.

Iraqi Trade Unions concern themselves with numerous measures which go beyond their own organisational viability and those of the wages and conditions of their members. Economic development is a key concern and they are insistent that the dominant Oil Industry in Iraq should remain in public ownership and become subject to democratic control.

The status of women in society is another huge issue. For instance, along with women’s organisations and non-governmental bodies, trade unions were at the centre of action leading to the repeal of Saddam Hussein’s Law 137 under which
women were under male domination in families and marriages. There are also conflicting interpretations of the new Iraqi Constitution with its free status for women clashing with its Islamic commitments which some would use to justify Sharia law.

Whilst I was in Iraqi Kurdistan I entered into discussions with women Trade Unionists at factories, on a Trade Union Training Course as tutors and students and in Civic Society meetings; but I have also met female GFITU activists at the TUC and in the Commons. In Arbil, the visiting Trade Unionists included Hasimia Muhsin Hussein who is President of the Basra Electricty and Energy Union. So far she is the only major office holder in an GFITU affiliate who is a women. Yet all of these bodies have commitments to equal rights for women and struggle for this, especially within industry.


Understanding something about the commitments, scope and potential of the Iraqi Trade Union Movement is a prelude to working with and for them. I will first give an indication of what assistance the British Trade Union Movement is providing its brothers and sisters in Iraq. I will then suggest ways in which, as individuals, we can also assist.

(a) UNISON funds Trade Union Training Courses in Iraq. We visited one of these in Arbil and later came across shop stewards from the courses in their factories. We also met the co-ordinator running the national scheme. As a former tutor on Trade Union Courses myself, I was impressed by what I heard and saw.

As a consquence of our visit UNISON representatives also made a commitment to find resources to fund a workers radio station in Iraq.

In 2004 the FBU collected and delivered 600 kits of boots, leggings, tunics and helmets to fire fighters in Basra when they discovered that the Iraqi firefighters operated without essential equipment. Recently, they delivered two fire engines to Iraq and had to pay bribes to Turkish border guards in order to be allowed to cross into Iraq.

RMT, PCS and the GMB are amongst other Unions who have provided practical help in their areas. Many Unions have facilitated visits to and from Iraq with their equivalents. Iraqi Trade Unionists attend Trade Union Education Courses in this country.

In addition to making regular representations to our Government and that of Iraq, the TUC run a “Aid Iraq Appeal” which has sponsored a major project run by the International Federation of Journalists in assisting Iraqi Journalists to establish free Trade Unions. Whilst the NUJ is one of the Unions active in the works of the TUC’s important Iraq Solidarity Committee. The workers’ rights to free expression being crucial.

(b) How can individual Trade Union and Labour Movement activists help?

First, by getting up to speed on the issues involved and then spreading the word. The key source for such information is the TUC book on Hadi Saleh which I mentioned earlier. It sells at £10 and profits go to the TUC’s Aid to Iraq Appeal. The book also provides essential details on who to contact.

As part of the TUC’s Appeal, it also collects old mobile phones with their chargers for conversion for use in Iraq. These are important as travel is dangerous and landlines unrealiable. Unlike cash, mobiles are unlikely to be sequested by the State.

Within a person’s own Trade Union and Labour Movement Organisation questions can be raised to see if adequate support is being provided to bodies such as the TUC’s Iraq Solidarity Committee and Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ). The latter will provide speakers for meetings.

Links made to the web-site run by the LFIQ will reveal other groups that operate in support of these ideals. There is, for instance, a group called Books to Iraq (with their own web-site) who collect funds to purchase and export text books for the Iraqi School of Pharmacy.

In Conclusion

I started by commenting on the two big issues which often dominate our thoughts on Iraq - where did we stand on the invasion and where do we now stand on the question of “troops out”? I then said that whatever divided us over these matters, those active in the wider Labour Movement could and should still unite together over a third big issue; namely, support for an Iraqi Trade Union Movement that pursues workers’ rights, democracy, civil rights and a secular state. This Movement is one of the best hopes for a decent future for Iraq.

In fact, merely to concentrate on the invasion and on the current position of the Armed Forces is a rather Western-centred approach. These matters are, of course, also of key importance to the Iraqi people. But their daily struggles show that we need to go beyond our own two big issues if we are to link in with their needs. After all, whose side will we be on when the troops leave ? If the answer includes the Trade Unions, then shouldn’t we be active at their side already ?


Unknown said...

“Wondering Labour Party, so lost, so helpless, yearning for my guidance…”

Harry Barnes said...

I suppose that it pays to advertise

Andrew. said...

I feel guilty for not reading all that, I'm sure its good, but jsut to let you know I got here by your advertisement on Phantom's blog. Congratulations :)

Shamik Das said...

Me too!

Harry Barnes said...

(1)Nightowl has an interest in Sunderland AFC, so my item "Football Crazy, Football Mad" posted on 6 August should be of interest. As will a future one on my recent 60th Anniversary visit of seeing them first play. (2) As Sham and Nightowls latest posts are on Iraq, my above item might be worth pursuing some time. (3) Most of what I post is wordy and so far is mainly about funerals, sport and Iraq. Its not likely to get much different.