David Bacon / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-02-07 08:58:05
(January 28, 2005) — When they came for Hadi Saleh, they found him at home in Baghdad with his family. First, they bound his hands and feet with wire. Then they tortured him, cutting him with a knife. He finally died of strangulation, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Before fleeing, his assailants pumped bullets into his dead body.
No group claimed credit for his assassination on January 4. Nobody knows for sure who carried it out. But for many Iraqis, the manner of his death was a signature.
In 1969, when Saleh was only twenty, sentenced to death in a Baathist prison, such murderous tactics were already becoming well known. For the next thirty- plus years the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police, used them against his friends and coworkers. In early January in Baghdad, killers intent on sending the same bloody message finally visited these horrors on him.
Iraq has never been a very safe place for trade unionists, socialists or democratic-minded people. In one of the few times when Iraqi progressives seemed to be on top, they finally threw out the king in 1958.
For a few years, organizing unions and breaking up the big estates were not just dreams, but government policy. Oil was nationalized, and the revenue used to build universities, factories and hospitals. That vision of Iraq shaped Saleh’s generation of political activists, and still holds their loyalty today. For Americans, who know little of Iraqi history, that vision is unknown.
His death wasn’t even reported by the mainstream US media, because it doesn’t fit the paradigm of soldiers and roadside bombs, through which Americans are taught to understand the occupation.
Thirty-five years ago, Saleh’s dangerous notions led to his being arrested, accused of being a trade unionist and a red. Narrowly escaping execution, he spent five years in prison. On his release he joined many of his compatriots who’d already fled into exile, where he lived for over thirty years.
When Saddam Hussein finally fell, Saleh and his friends returned to reorganize the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. He became its international secretary. And even under a brutal US military occupation, they began seeking ways to turn into reality that old dream of a progressive Iraq.
Remarkably, they’ve been very successful at organizing new unions, which workers need as never before. A study by the economics faculty of Baghdad University last fall puts unemployment at 70%. Wages were frozen by the occupation authorities at $60 a month.
US Occupation’s Goal Is to Privative Resources; Weaken Unions
First US administrator Paul Bremer, and now Iyad Allawi, installed as President by the US and British, seek to privatize Iraq’s big state-owned factories, which workers fear will lead to even further job losses.
In September, 2003, Bremer issued Order #39, permitting 100% foreign ownership of businesses, except for the oil industry, and allowing repatriation of profits.
Bremer appointee Tom Foley, a Bush fundraiser, drew up lists of state enterprises to be sold off, including cement and fertilizer plants, phosphate and sulfur mines, pharmaceutical factories and the country’s airline.
In two years the IFTU has organized twelve national unions for different industries, and successfully challenged the occupation’s low-wage regime. But success has had it cost. Saleh’s murder is the latest in a series of attacks on workers and unions, in response to their increasing activity.
Last November, armed insurgents attacked freight trains, killing four workers, and then beating and kidnapping others a month later. Teachers have also been murdered. They say they’re being blamed for helping the occupation by doing their jobs, although they perform no military function.
Attacks come from US troops and the Iraqi government as well. US soldiers threw the Transport and Communication unionists out of their office in the Baghdad’s central bus station in December 2003, and arrested members of the IFTU executive board.
Qasim Hadi, general secretary of the Union of the Unemployed, has been arrested several times by occupation troops, for leading demonstrations of unemployed workers demanding unemployment benefits and jobs.
Last fall, after textile workers in the city of Kut struck over low pay, the factory manager and city governor called out the Iraqi National Guard, who fired on them. Four were wounded, and another 11 arrested.
Saleh’s Murder ‘a Bloody Example’
Saleh’s murderers had two objectives in making him a bloody example. For the Baathists among the insurgents, the growth of unions and organizations of civil society, from women’s’ groups to political parties, is a dangerous deviation.
Their hopes of returning to power rest on a military defeat for the US, without a corresponding development of popular, progressive organizations that can govern a post- occupation Iraq.
Trying to stop those organizations from using the elections to organize a support base is a second objective. None of Iraq’s new unions support the armed resistance, and they all call for an end to the occupation. But even progressive Iraqis disagree about the elections.
Some, like the Union of the Unemployed, boycott the process as a charade organized by the occupation. Other parties, however, from the Iraqi Communist Party, to which Saleh belonged, to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of Shiite Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, see elections as a vehicle for winning power.
In exile, the ICP condemned the war and US invasion, but when the occupation started, it joined the Governing Council. Two of its members are currently ministers in the Allawi government.
While the Bush administration and some parts of Iraqi civil society might each have their reasons for wanting elections, they have very different goals in mind. For some on the Iraqi left, once the occupation is gone, a mass-based political party with a radical program could win the actual power to implement it. Iraqi civil society — unions, women’s’ and professional organizations, and left-wing parties — are trying to grow in a political space that is rapidly shrinking.
Bush’s Preference: a ‘Dependable Dictator’
The armed resistance doesn’t want them around. And despite talk of democracy, the Bush administration would prefer another dependable dictator than popular resistance to the free market plan.
Saleh’s assassination makes plain the extreme lack of security of these Iraqi leftists, caught between the two. The longer the occupation lasts, the more violence skyrockets, and the harder it is for workers to join a union, much less demonstrate and protest.
John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, condemned Saleh’s murder and called him “courageous,” a welcome departure from the cold war past in which left-wing trade unionists abroad were often reviled as enemies. US Labor Against the War went further, in a statement that combined condemnation with a call to end the occupation and withdraw US troops, a position the AFL- CIO has yet to take. Unions in Britain did so as well.
Another IFTU leader, Abdullah Muhsen, remembered Saleh’s vision of an Iraq with a future, a vision that in the end, he died for: “a democratic, peaceful and federal Iraq, which would unite all Iraqis, regardless of their background, ethnicity or religion … workers’ rights to organize and to strike to achieve decent jobs, pay and working conditions … a defeat for IMF shock therapy and economic occupation, imposed on us by the occupying powers.”
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