Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Dividing Line

Why an Iraqi Trade Unionist’s Murder Should Cause the Left to Rethink Iraq

On January 4th, Hadi Saleh returned to his Baghdad home. Inside, he was ambushed by a group of masked men. They bound his hands and feet and shortly thereafter the torture began – a brutal mixture of burns and beatings to his head and body. Afterwards, the men pushed Hadi to his knees and strangled him with electrical wire. As a finishing touch, the men littered Hadi’s dead body with bullets.

We’ve grown accustomed to such gruesomeness being perpetrated in the new Iraq. Yet, what separates this murder from others, at least for the left, should be Saleh’s role in Iraq’s civil society. Saleh, 55, was the international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), one part of a nascent trade union movement fighting for a secular, pluralistic, and democratic Iraq. His murderers, thought to be remnants of Saddam’s secret police, targeted him for his union activism and his fight for a democratic Iraq. Hadi Saleh was a patriot in the best sense of the word and the memory of his courage and sacrifice should become the dividing line for those on the left thinking about Iraq.

Just before the “Shock and Awe” bombardment of Iraq, Saleh traveled back to Iraq to help resurrect an independent trade union movement outlawed underneath Hussein’s dictatorship. It was this type of activism combined with his membership in the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) that landed Saleh in jail at the age of 20. Originally sentenced to death in 1969, Saleh’s sentence was commuted after spending five years in a Baathist dungeon. Not long after Saleh took his family into exile. After emigrating from place to place, he and his family eventually found refuge in Sweden, where he stayed until his return to Iraq before the fall of Baghdad.

During his years of exile, Saleh was indefatigable. In 1980 he traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to help found the underground Workers’ Democratic Trade Union Movement (WDTUM). Throughout the 1980s, the WDTUM was integral in smuggling out of Iraq macabre tales of Hussein’s necromantic regime that landed in various human rights reports. After the regime’s fall, the WDTUM called a meeting in May 2003. The proceedings were attended by 350 Iraqi trade unionists made up of liberals, communists, and nationals, spanning the ethnic identity of Iraq. Out of this meeting arose the IFTU.

In just under two years, the IFTU has organized 200,000 members and has created twelve national unions in Iraq’s core industries. Of these twelve, six have held free and open workers’ conferences and have elected a 15 member leading committee. Much like the January 30th elections, Iraqi unions are demonstrating the pent-up demand for participation in society and in government among the Iraqi population.

But the most intriguing part of the IFTU is their political stances and the reaction they have elicited from segments of the European Left. Both Saleh and the IFTU were opponents of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States. But they weren’t doves by any means. Rather they believed the invasion and occupation should have been led by the United Nations. Currently the IFTU supports the political process enshrined in the three U.N. Resolutions governing Iraq: 1483, 1511, and 1546. Resolution 1546 explicitly states the multinational force (the U.S. and the U.K.) now securing Iraq cannot leave until an adequate security force is established and Iraq is governed by a constitutionally elected government, unless that is; the transitional government asks the multinational force to leave. As Abdullah Muhsin, international representative for the IFTU, poses the question, “Foreigners came into Iraq without asking – why should they now decide they are going to leave without asking?”

Another sore point for those who oppose the IFTU was their dedication to the January 30th elections. Over email, Muhsin sent me his opinion of the then upcoming election, which he wrote was “essential to avoid a brutal assault by reactionary forces.” During the elections, the IFTU supported all the secular and progressive lists that “promote women’s rights, trade union rights, and above all support the building of a genuine parliamentary democracy.” It shouldn’t be lost on progressives and the left that these are the ideals we promote at home, yet despite this platform, Muhsin and the IFTU are likened to the Vichy government for their support of Iraq’s political process among Europe’s anti-war left.

Muhsin sent me an article he wrote answering the heckles of those critical of the IFTU and the elections in general. It deserves to be quoted from at length.

Given the vivid history of this monstrous ideology (Baathism), it is hard to stomach the open support provided to such forces by armchair revolutionaries in the West masquerading as anti-imperialists, who display their ethnocentric ignorance by championing a false battle fought with somebody else’s blood.

This is dangerous strand of thought, clad neatly in a real cultural imperialist coat – ‘listen to us, we know better.’ And if it just so happens that you dare to question or disagree with their mode of thinking, then ready-made labels are immediately available to be used against you – labels such as 'quisling' and 'collaborator' and many more.

This extreme argument rests its logic on the basis that the forthcoming election will be divisive, that it could lead to civil war and that it is nothing but an imperialist plot to legitimize the authority of the imperialists’ puppet regime in Baghdad so as to plunder Iraq’s natural wealth.

Such a view has neither a popular base nor international endorsement. However, it draws support from extreme nationalism – Saddam loyalists and Islamic fanatics and disenfranchised hard-left fanatics so detached from reality that they can only survive on empty slogans.

The inability of certain segments of the left to realize that these divisions exist, speaks volumes about the tendency to want failure in Iraq as a way to harm the Bush presidency rather than standing in solidarity with Iraqi unions and other civil society organizations. Because of this tendency, the left has lost moral credibility and their most valuable and commendable trait: internationalism. To regain that lost virtue, the left must realize paradoxically that continued occupation presently helps, rather than hinders, Iraqi democrats. That the occupation should be used to shore up the strength of Iraq’s democrats and moderates (which the election seems to have done), while protecting them from insurgents should be commonsense. The time will certainly come when it hampers democratization. Until then though, the left must listen to the secular and democratic voices on the ground. The IFTU and the broader labor movement want the U.S. and the U.K. out of Iraq, but they understand an immediate withdrawal would bolster the reactionary elements of the insurgency and kill any democratic possibilities. That’s why they support the political framework of U.N. Resolution 1546.

No one genuinely concerned about democracy believes one election equates to democracy, but an election combined with vibrant civil society organizations does lend hope that a democratic Iraq is possible. Progressives and the left should take heart that there are Iraqi civil society organizations craving a multi-ethnic, secular, and democratic Iraq. Much of this sentiment is centered in the IFTU and throughout Iraq’s born again labor movement, making them a target for anti-democratic forces as well as an example of what happens to democrats in Saleh's case.

The left should take its cue from the IFTU and Iraq’s broader labor movement when it calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or secretly wishes for Bush’s failure. That means it needs to listen more to Iraqi democrats on the ground than adhere to ideological abstractions such as anti-imperialism If not, progressives may unintentionally cross that dividing line which separates principled opposition (or ideological rigidity) over into de facto support of totalitarianism.