Apr 14, 2005
With the two-year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad serving as his backdrop, President Bush addressed a specially arranged assembly of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, proclaiming that the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein two years before would rank with the fall of the Berlin Wall "as one of the great moments in the history of liberty."
In an ironic anticipation of Bush's remarks, several hundred thousand demonstrators had poured into the streets of Baghdad only three days earlier, celebrating the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein in their own way – by calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq. They pulled down an effigy of Saddam Hussein erected in Firdos Square where the original had been located – then added effigies of Bush and of Britain's Tony Blair to the pile.
Called by the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, with a supporting call by a Sunni cleric, Harith Dhari, chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Baghdad demonstration was the largest one to be held since the fall of Saddam, and it sparked demonstrations against the American and British occupation over the next few days in Duluiyah, Baqouba and Samarra.
The fact that demonstrators had stoned U.S. tanks in Samarra only a few hours before he spoke did not deter Bush from nonchalantly asserting, "the United States will stand with the Iraqi people as they take control of their destiny and assume the blessings of self-government."
Bush may be pardoned for being ecstatic about the increase in his vote, since he actually won both the popular vote and the electoral vote this time, rather than getting into the White House as he did in 2000 with fewer popular votes than his opponent had – and with suspicion hanging over his head about Florida.
From the January 30th election, up to the appointment of the leading figures in the new Iraqi administration during the first week of April, Iraq has been marked by anything but "liberty" and "self-government."
The general election held on January 30th was certainly hailed as a new "democratic" dawn – on the basis of voting figures that no one can check and about which there can only be real doubts, not least of which is the fact that the Shia coalition received only 48% of the vote officially, thus denying it an absolute majority, even though the Shias make up at least 60% of the population, and undoubtedly a higher proportion of those who voted, given that the Sunnis for the most part boycotted the election.
"Democracy"? With the echoes of the Falluja massacre still reverberating, and with terrorist bombings widespread throughout the country, Iraq was hardly a poster child for democracy – despite Bush's claim that the Iraqi people had at last been able to exercise their "democratic" rights.
What "democratic" rights? The right to starve in desperate poverty and absolute social chaos, while most of the reconstruction funds flowing into the country end up either in the pockets of U.S. and British contractors or into the military infrastructure? The right to survive on food rations – for those who are lucky enough still to get them – without a job, amidst constant power failures, chronic fuel shortages, and unsafe drinking water, while speculators are making a killing under the nose, if not with the complicity, of the occupation forces? The right of women in some regions to wear the burka – under threat of being beaten or gang-raped if they don't?
And what choice did this election offer? The main slates had no specific political platforms and none of them dared openly to criticize the occupation. Although they all claimed to represent the whole Iraqi population, they actually defined themselves in religious or ethnic terms. Voters were faced with only one of two possible choices: either they "wasted" their ballot by voting for one of the few non-sectarian slates, which stood no chance of having anyone elected, or else they voted for politicians whose sole program was to promote the interests of one section of the population against the others.
More than anything, these elections reflected the need of the Bush administration to dampen the growing questions posed by the U.S. population about the war in Iraq, regardless of the consequences for the Iraqi population. The date itself had been set as a function of Bush's own election campaign.
In the end, predictably, the United Iraqi Alliance list, which is dominated by the two largest religious Shia parties, topped the poll, followed by the Kurdish list, formed by the two main Kurdish nationalist groups.
The election, however, did not quickly lead to the formation of a new government, despite the quick timetable the U.S. had set up for what should follow. It took two months of protracted negotiations between the two front runners before they could agree on who would occupy which top position in the new "transitional" government – with the ceremonial post of president to be filled by Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; the prime minister's spot to be taken by Ibrahim Jaafari, head of the Shia Da'awa Islamic Party; with one of the vice-president spots to go to Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the Sunni president of the current "interim" government; the other to go to Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shia politician and finance minister in the "interim" government; and the Assembly speaker's position to go to Hachim Hasani, a Sunni who had spent the previous 20 years in the U.S. as a professor, before returning to Iraq in 2003.
By all accounts, the horse-trading required to parcel out these few posts was exceedingly contentious, and the trading isn't nearly over, since most of the 31 cabinet slots remain to be filled as of this writing. Commented the Los Angeles Times on this process: "Eager to avoid leaving any party or ethnic group feeling so disenfranchised that it forms an opposition party, the new government is divvying up political posts largely along ethnic and religious lines."
But it's not just a question of roping in every possible opposition. The real fight going on behind the scenes is over who controls the military and the money, and the posts in the government that give access to those things: interior and defense, with their hands on the police and military, and the oil ministry and finance, with their hands on the money.
Moreover, the most divisive issues haven't been touched at all: for example, the autonomous status of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk with its sizeable oil reserves; and the future of the various militias, which involve tens of thousands of armed men on both the Shia and Kurdish sides.
In fact, the lines of tension, which had been temporarily blurred by the need to form electoral alliances, are now re-emerging. The United Iraqi Alliance is threatening to fragment, because some of its components are opposed to making any concessions to the Kurdish parties' nationalist claims, while others are dissatisfied with the Alliance-sponsored prime minister, the leader of the Islamic Da'awa party. Among the dissenting factions is the National Bloc, a faction close to the radical fundamentalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which seems to have a substantial following among the poorest layers of the Shia population in large towns such as Baghdad, Najaf and Basra. The demonstrations called by al-Sadr for last weekend probably were intended to warn the latest "transitional" assembly that he wasn't going away, even if he wasn't in it.
Moreover, now that the national election is out of the way, regional strong men are coming out of the woodwork in the hope of taking advantage of the current provisions for the setting up of autonomous regions. In addition to the Kurds' claim to an autonomous status, there are now at least two other regional bodies which have launched a similar claim – one based around Basra and the other around Najaf. To these centrifugal forces one should add, of course, the Sunni religious parties which, having boycotted the election, are now busy denouncing the sidelining of the Sunni minority and presenting themselves as its only legitimate voice. Finally, among the Kurds themselves, the historic antagonisms between the two groupings that made up the Kurdish bloc could already be seen resurfacing by the unfriendly reaction of many Kurds to the appointment of Talabani, who in the past was best known for leading his militia into a bloody civil war against a rival Kurdish party.
In fact, this so-called "democratic" process initiated by Bush and Blair to appease their own domestic public opinion has already increased the stakes in the rivalry between the factions which have been propelled to the forefront of the political scene by the invasion of Iraq.
Given the fact that most of these factions are armed or allied with armed groups, there is a real danger that their rivalries will turn into open confrontation at some stage. Coming in addition to the on-going and, more often than not, blind terrorist warfare carried out against the occupation forces and their Iraqi auxiliaries, this would mean even more victims among the Iraqi population itself and, potentially, the risk of the situation developing into outright civil war.
Meanwhile, contrary to western leaders' predictions and the media's lack of attention to the situation, the security situation for the population has remained just as bad as it was before the election. U.S. forces were continuing to make sweeps through some neighborhoods. A large part of Baghdad had to be closed off during the only sitting of the National Assembly so far. A day before the new positions were announced, 50 armed Shiites blocked off a road south of Baghdad, then kidnaped 40 Sunnis in retaliation for the kidnaping of seven Shiites the preceding day. On the day Talabani took office, a Shiite shrine was blown up in Latifiyah, several bombs went off in Mosul killing or injuring dozens and, according to a New York Times article, "Apache attack helicopters circled the skies, while the Iraqi police set up checkpoints along the major roads downtown." In the following days, among other things, four children were blown up in Baghdad, when they dug up a bomb while searching through garbage for metal scrap to sell.
Finally, although Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority have departed Iraq months ago, the U.S. still openly calls the shots. As if to underline the point, Donald Rumsfeld showed up in Iraq shortly after the new posts were filled to give the new officials their marching orders, particularly over the question of the Iraqi armed forces. With the appointment of the new government posts, several members of the transitional assembly had demanded that there be a purge of the current government posts to remove all former Ba'athists, a great many of whom are concentrated in the military and the police. Publicly calling on the new government to refrain from engaging in "political revenge," Rumsfeld declared that the new government must include "highly competent people who are not going to politicize security forces" – which was taken to mean he wanted the former Ba'athists left in place. One of the newly appointed vice-presidents reiterated the point, expressing concern, according to Reuters, "that Sunnis, who gained wide experience in the security and intelligence services under Saddam, would be dismissed" if there were to be "de-Ba'athification."
Whatever disputes marked the two months since the election, all the forces taking part in the horse-trading have one thing in common, which they share with the U.S. and British occupation forces. They are at least united in a desire to hold the population in check, and this can be seen particularly in relationship to the growing workers movement in Iraq.
The fact that all of the very harsh anti-union and anti-worker laws of the Saddam Hussein era have still been left on the books – after all the changes in occupation authorities and "interim" governments one after another – speaks volumes about that.
Under Saddam, workers in the public sector – which was by far the biggest employer – were forbidden from organizing. In the private sector, workers were allowed to organize – but only in government controlled unions. There were harsh penalties for striking, including the death penalty in certain circumstances. And beyond the legal sanctions were the paramilitary forces who went into worker neighborhoods and even workplaces to kidnap, torture and assassinate worker activists.
After Saddam Hussein fell – to be replaced first by Interim Administrator Jay Garner, then by Paul Bremer, at the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) – his repressive laws and sanctions were left in place.
Nonetheless, there does seem to have been some flourishing of organizing inside Iraq, spurred on by the fall of the old regime. Workers began to organize independently of the old government unions in some situations or to use the government unions to mobilize in others. A number of protests for higher pay took place, as the CPA lowered the minimum wage that had come down from the Saddam era. By May of 2003, a new national union federation, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions was set up, coming in part from the underground unions associated with one of the two Iraqi Communist parties. By June, when it organized a meeting of representatives from around Iraq, it claimed to have 12 new national unions and trade union councils in most of Iraq's cities. By the end of that year, the federation claimed to have 200,000 members, more than 400 local workers committees and 3,500 activists.
Starting in 2003, and spilling over into 2004, there were strikes, including most significantly among oil field workers as well as transport workers. There were also demonstrations of the unemployed for jobs.
In response to this activity, the CPA froze all funds that unions had accumulated. In June of 2003, Bremer decreed that anyone who incites "civil disorder" would be treated as a prisoner of war, letting it be known that this applied to the organizers of strikes and demonstrations. In the following months, a number of union leaders were either detained for periods or arrested by first the CPA, then later by one of the successive "interim" governments. In December of 2003, for example, armored U.S. personnel carriers surrounded the Baghdad headquarters of the Transport and Communication Workers. U.S. troops stormed in, breaking windows and furniture, taking records and detaining overnight eight members of the union's executive board who had been in the building, then completely sealing off its offices so they could not be used as a headquarters.
Other leaders of the new unions were detained a number of times in 2003, according to the International Labor Organization, for such offenses as leading demonstrations of the unemployed.
When the CPA withdrew, in June of 2004, being replaced by the so-called "transitional" regime of Iyad Allawi, the transitional law decreed by the CPA in its last days forbade any change in Bremer's orders, meaning that defacto all the old Saddam Hussein orders regarding unions were also still left in place, as well as Bremer's decree on "civil disorder."
Later in 2004, Allawi's regime announced it would recognize the new union federation, but as of today this has not translated into the recognition of its member unions, nor to the South Oil Company Union, which is important around Basra, nor to the Federation of Workers Councils, associated with militants of the other Communist Party. In any event, this formal "recognition" changed nothing as far as repression directed against union militants. If anything, the repression became worse during this period. A number of workers were killed during 2004, for the simple reason they were trying to find work either in the oil fields or transport or construction, including several dozen railroad workers in Mosul and Basra were shot down by paramilitary forces. Eighteen workers from Baghdad who had traveled to Mosul on the promise of getting work were executed in early 2005.
Union leaders and activists have been regularly targeted for kidnaping and torture, as well as assassination. In January 2005, Hadi Salih, International Secretary of the IFTU, was kidnaped from his home in Baghdad and assassinated. Later in the same month, the president of the Iraqi Mechanics' Metalworkers' and Printworkers' Union was kidnaped and beaten before being released. In early February, Ali Hassan Abd, leader of the Oil and Gas Workers Union at a Baghdad refinery was shot down in the streets of Baghdad, to be followed a few weeks later by the murder of Ahmed Adris Abbas, an activist in the Transport and Communications Union. In the same month, a number of union activists in Mosul were kidnaped, including the General Secretary of the Mosul branch of the IFTU.
Some of the repression directed against these activists seems to be coming from the old forces of repression from the Saddam Hussein regime, particularly the killing of Hadi Salih, given that the killers desecrated his body in much the same way that murdered activists had been treated under Saddam. Other killings, particularly those of the oil and transport workers seem to have been carried out by the "insurgency" as a way to intimidate workers to keep them from "collaborating" with the occupation, that is, to keep them from working in the oil fields. Still other activists, gunned down in the oil fields during strikes, were killed by paramilitary forces that the union involved believes were sent by Halliburton or other Western companies charged with running the oil fields.
Whoever is involved in these killings and attacks, it's obvious that all of the forces contending to run Iraq today are complicit in one way or another in the repression
being directed against the Iraqi workers' movement – even if only by maintaining the old repressive laws.
The attacks being carried out on workers and their organizations put the lie to Bush's claim that the U.S. is building "democracy" in Iraq – another of the lies used to justify this war to the U.S. population.
That the U.S. has to stay in Iraq to prop up "this fledgling democracy" is the biggest lie of all. Which "fledgling democracy" does he mean? The one based on the repressive laws against the workers adopted from the Saddam Hussein regime? The one being put in place by the U.S.- anointed government, which continues to make the situation for women in Iraq more perilous? Or the political wheeling and dealing that the U.S. set in motion through these elections and parliamentary games – a wheeling and dealing that in the context of what the U.S. has already done to Iraq may easily lead to a civil war? If that civil war erupts, it will be exactly because of what the U.S. has done and continues to do.
Behind Bush's talk about an "Iraqi democracy," there is another reality, one we need to keep in front of our eyes: the gruesome images of the mass slaughter inflicted on Falluja, the photos of the torture that goes on in places like Abu Ghraib, the body bags which come back from the killing fields. Talk about building democracy notwithstanding, there is growing disaffection for this war among the U.S. troops in Iraq – just as there is among the U.S. military's pool of potential recruits. It's significant that neither the Army nor the Marines have been able to meet their new recruiting goals in recent months, nor have their Reserves been able to maintain force levels.
The U.S. needs to get out of Iraq, it needs to get out now. Every extra day the U.S. stays in Iraq, the situation only grows worse for the population there, as well as for the working class here, which supplies most of the U.S. forces that continue to be ground up in Iraq.