The battle for democracy in Iraq

GARY KENT urges the British Labour movement to support Iraq’s emerging trade unions and grassroots democrats.

All the Iraqis I know were exiled by Saddam Hussein, as were four million other people. They detested Saddam’s murderous regime, which was modelled explicitly on those of Stalin and Hitler. The victims ran into the millions.

My Iraqi friends also opposed the war because they feared the impact on their loved ones and country. They thought that Iraqis should overthrow Saddam.

Personally, I believed that Saddam’s regime was not likely to be overthrown internally, after scores of abortive coups and the regular massacres of dissidents and potential dissidents, and that the succession of his psychopathic sons was pretty much assured. Combined with the terrible effects of the UN sanctions policy on Iraqi civilians (about whom Saddam didn’t give a damn) and the ability of the regime to raise billions in oil revenues despite containment, I believed that external force was the only viable way of tackling the regime.

Groundhog day

I know that most readers of Democratic Socialist and many members of Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ) would disagree with this analysis and the use of military force. We could rehearse these arguments for many moons to come but we are now where we are. The left doing its own Groundhog Day on the 45 minute claim et al would sap our energy and prevent us doing something more positive to assist Iraqi democrats.

For now that Saddam has gone, Iraqis are enthusiastic to rebuild their country. And the United Nations has endorsed a process which aims to give Iraq its first democratically elected government in the new year. It will decide whether foreign troops stay or go.

It is ironic that some on the left, who placed so much emphasis on the importance of the UN sanctioning the original use of force, have been very slow to recognise that, however late in the day, the UN has taken charge of the process that started, they say, by an illegal and immoral war.

Some party members, who were promoting the withdrawal of troops at Labour Party conference, seemed not to know that the UN Security Council had adopted a resolution in support of the political process which had, in fact, set possible dates for the withdrawal of troops. Some complained that they had only just heard of it, to which my simple response is ‘read the newspapers’.

The proposal to set an early date for withdrawal was comprehensively rejected at the conference. Withdrawing the troops before the elections would create a security vacuum that would murder democracy and probably Balkanise Iraq. And it would betray Iraqi democrats, because a whole new grassroots Iraq has emerged out of the ruins of the one-party state.

Hundreds of new newspapers and dozens of mainly new parties are campaigning around the elections. There are many active women’s groups. Workers have set up free unions to replace the state-run fronts which were part of Saddam’s terror apparatus.

The key union formation is the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which has soared from a tiny clandestine outfit to 12 affiliates with 200,000 members. They face huge obstacles. Unemployment stands at over 50 per cent. The shattered economy is slowly being rebuilt after decades of being ripped off by Saddam and his sons, plus the effects of UN sanctions and the recent military action. Another obstacle the new unions face is that unions are closely identified with state terror.

And there has been terrible violence in some key areas, like Falluja, by a rag-bag alliance of former Saddam supporters, foreign jihadists and dis-gruntled men who were all too quickly drummed out of the Iraqi army and police forces. For so long as the reconstruction is delayed, more people will be tempted to join the resistance. And the more people who are drawn into terrorism, the more the reconstruction will be delayed. But this is the dynamic in the ‘Sunni triangle’, not the whole of the country.

One way out of the vicious circle is to develop the organisations that are needed in any healthy democracy and even more in Iraq. Democracy is more than just the right to vote: it is about the right to organise and make decisions which affect our lives.

Iraqi unions are like all unions – they argue for better wages and conditions as well as progressive labour laws. But they also provide a non-sectarian forum for discussion and an outlet for political frustrations. The unions are a bulwark against nihilistic terror.

Parts of the ‘resistance’ use terror to strengthen their hand in the elections. Others oppose elections and are doing their utmost to prevent them. This is why they have slaughtered hundreds of Iraqi civilians, from new Iraqi army recruits to children celebrating the opening of a new water treatment plant.

Unfortunately, parts of the British left think that the key enemy is America and have made a pact with the insurgent devil because their enemy’s enemy is their friend. The leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, who the writer Nick Cohen rightly describes as totalitarians, even issued a statement denouncing the IFTU as collaborators, backing resistance ‘by whatever means’ and dismissing the possibility, under occupation, of trades unionism.

Being called a collaborator or, in the words of Stop the War leader George Galloway, a ‘quisling’, in Iraq is tantamount to a death sentence. The leadership of the Stop the War movement thereby put brave Iraqi trade unionists and progressives on show trial. Character assassination can lead to actual assassination. Four railway workers were, in fact, murdered and mutilated whilst driving a train full of consumer goods.

‘By whatever means’ presumably includes beheading and suicide bombs, or security recruits being disarmed and shot in the head one by one, or children being blown apart at the opening of a new water treatment plant. Some ultra-leftists even tried to attack the IFTU general secretary at a meeting in London, presumably ignorant of the fact that he was jailed for ten years and tortured under Saddam.

It was entirely honourable to oppose the war and everyone should mourn the continuing loss of life but it is a disgrace to side with those who want to destroy demo-cracy in Iraq. Full details of the shameful statements of the Stop the War leadership and the ultra-left can be found on the LFIQ web site:

New unity

We have established Labour Friends of Iraq to bring together people who opposed or supported the war but now see that circumstances have changed. The new unity of pro-war and anti-war forces is symbolised by the choice of our presidents.

One is Ann Clwyd MP, who consistently opposed Saddam since the 1980s and has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s envoy on human rights to Iraq. She knows from her extensive travels in Iraq just what a monster Saddam Hussein was and she is a powerful voice in favour of Iraqi democrats.

Our other president is the North East Derbyshire MP Harry Barnes who did his own national service in Basra in the 1950s and who also always opposed Saddam Hussein. The left rebel consistently opposed the war and joined anti-war marches and platforms. He has no regrets about doing this but has also been a powerful friend of the new Iraqi labour movement and an advocate of support for the IFTU.

The two have united to try to fashion a new ‘third way’ – going beyond increasingly sterile arguments for and against war in favour of solidarity with grassroots Iraq. It’s not that we don’t mention the war but that the priority is to unite the labour movement here in support of the labour movement in Iraq.

British trade unions, which opposed the invasion, have led the way in aiding brave Iraqi trade unionists. The Fire Brigades Union, for instance, provided much needed fire-fighting equipment to the Iraqi fire brigade. The TUC has launched an Aid Iraq Appeal, raising money for Iraqi trade unionists to rebuild a free and independent trade union movement, and strengthen civil society in Iraq. All the money raised goes to funding trade union organisation in Iraq, without deductions for administration. The money will help Iraqi unions develop their organising and education programmes and buy computers and office equipment.

Iraq has had strong labour traditions. Before the Baathists came to power, a million people joined the May Day march in Baghdad in 1959. Iraq also has proud traditions of secularism and its people want to remain united. Iraq is the cradle of civilisation and its oil wealth could provide a decent life to all its citizens, so long repressed and deprived by a fascist-style regime. A democratic Iraq would also help pluralism and freedom flourish throughout the Middle East and maybe rejuvenate the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis.

The stakes are very high. We should help Iraqi democrats rebuild their country.

Gary Kent is director of Labour Friends of Iraq. He writes here in a personal capacity.

1 Comment

  1. Winter 2004 - ILP
    20 October 2010

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