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We are Nobody’s Pawns

Abdullah Muhsin

SOME IN the west have argued wrongly that the chaos in Iraq represents a national liberation struggle. They risk perpetuating a historical myth about our country. There is always a risk of cultural imperialism when people speak for others in the name of national liberation.

When I talked to students at Baghdad University in October 2003, six months after the fall of Saddam’s regime, they told me: "We were against Saddam, we were against the war, and we are against the occupation."

Today, those young people have endured a further 12 months of deteriorating security, a downward spiral of violence, an epidemic of kidnappings of Iraqi (not to mention Arab and foreign) nationals, and the grotesque emergence for the first time in Iraq’s history of the suicide bomb. The deployment by US forces of helicopter gunships and F16s against civilians reminds Iraqis of the brutality of state-sponsored violence.

Ordinary Iraqi workers want to build a united, democratic and federal nation where they can enjoy human rights and political freedoms available to those living in Europe, not be used as pawns in a clash of ideological fundamentalisms.

I was forced to flee Iraq in 1978 as an elected officer of the student union that Saddam banned. In Rome that year, five thugs from Saddam’s Mukhabarat attacked me and stabbed my friend while we handed out leaflets in a student canteen.

With other Iraqis, both in exile and clandestinely within the country, I worked in the 1980s and 90s to preserve a labour and student movement independent of the state-controlled unions. In February 2003 we marched in London and other cities against the war, conscious its first victims would inevitably be the same Iraqi civilians it claimed to liberate. Our first act after the fall of Saddam’s regime was to establish an open, democratic independent trade union, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions.

Today Iraq is on fire. Those in Britain who love human rights and freedoms have two options: to add petrol to the flames and fuel the violence, which will certainly lead to the end of Iraq’s territorial integrity, to its dismemberment and Balkanisation; or to offer solidarity and support to Iraqi democrats, socialists and trade unionists.

The emerging signs of vibrant civil society, such as organisations of women, trade unionists and students, present a real political opportunity to end the occupation and isolate the forces promoting sectarian, communal and religious violence.In this context the recent attacks on the IFTU by the Stop the War Coalition, George Galloway and others - in particular, their claims that we lobbied trade unions at the Labour conference to support the government’s position in the Iraq debate - must be answered.

We have received enormous support from the TUC and British trade unions. I was invited to the Labour party conference as a guest of Unison. Addressing a fringe meeting, I was joined by speakers who supported the IFTU line against the war and the occupation. My speech called for the removal of foreign troops and a genuine transfer of power to the Iraqi people. I explained the IFTU’s policy of support for UN resolution 1546. I did not offer voting advice to trade unions on Labour’s Iraq motions and confined my remarks to urging solidarity with Iraqi workers.

The IFTU is opposed to the occupation of our country, remains opposed to the illegal war on Iraq and to the horrendous decision of the occupying powers effectively to dissolve the functions of the Iraqi state rather than cleanse it of Saddam’s henchmen.

They are trying to introduce free-market and privatisation policies carried out by incompetent corporate plunderers whose aim is the economic occupation of our country. Our trade unions are the main impediment to such policies.

Some present a false dichotomy between the Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and a mainstream Iraqi national resistance.

Iraq is not another Vietnam; the so-called resistance are no maquis. The resistance offers at best another dictatorship modelled on Saddam’s regime, at worst an al-Zarqawi-inspired mediaeval theocracy using Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, as a base for its war against the US and Arab regimes. These forces offer only hell to Iraqis and harbour some of the world’s most dangerous ideas. They have no open social or political programme and no popular base, and are feared by most Iraqis.

Widespread, popular sentiment against the foreign occupation of our country does not translate into legitimation of these forces. With the support of the British and international labour movement, and others, we have a duty to ensure that the voice of Iraqi civil society is heard.

Published in the Guardian, 23 October 2004