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April 28, 2006

The other Iraq - report of the LFIQ delegation to Iraq

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Dave Anderson MP (Chair Labour Friends of Iraq) and Sue Rogers (TUC General Council) give an initial report of the recent LFIQ fact-finding trip to Iraq where we met the leadership of the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan trade union movements.

Iraq may be on the knife edge of full-scale civil war but there is another Iraq and a non-sectarian future through its growing labour movement.

A million trade unionists are on the march throughout Iraq. A network of non-sectarian union federations, professional associations and civil society groups has emerged in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

They could hold the key to uniting the country in peace and prosperity but only if the federal government's repressive efforts to ban independent activity using Saddam's anti-union laws and by seeking to create sectarian client unions is reversed.

Iraqi unions want urgent assistance to retrieve their independence and to boost their clout as a social partner in reconstructing Iraq. This is a huge task.

Iraqis have long been isolated from modern thinking in every field of human activity and must contend with the enormous physical and psychological legacy of dictatorship, sanctions and war.

Iraqi Kurdistan is generally secure but there is chronic insecurity in the rest of the country. Extremists have murdered over 500 teachers and lecturers who are seen by extremists as a great resource for stability and citizenship.

Trade union leaders such as Nozad Ismail in Kirkuk are being targeted by terrorists because their support for pluralism and democracy undermines those who seek to foment civil war. Nozad has survived two assassination attempts and is always armed himself.

Iraqi Kurdish Communist leader Kamal Shaker says that terrorists who target civilians are enemies of the people and that the real resistance are those who are building trade unions and reconstructing Iraq.

Their schools are overcrowded sometimes 110 pupils in a class - and hundreds of schools are still mud buildings. Many spoke of a continuing legacy of dominance and physical beatings in schools.

There is a desperate lack of decent housing. Water and electricity come and go. Petrol is often sold at the kerbside rather than petrol stations deeply ironic in such an oil-rich country. Roads are pot-holed and can change at a blink from tarmac to dirt tracks. Factories are idle or under-capacity.

Yet each part of Iraq has huge natural resources, including agriculture, minerals, oil and a potentially sophisticated workforce whose second language is often English - and offers real potential for foreign investment.

Iraq has a war-torn command style economy and no indigenous capitalist class to fund such investment and technology transfers.

Such investment always has costs such as a shake-out of workers but a stronger Iraqi labour movement can protect workers by improving training and social security.

We saw the breathtaking beauty of Iraqi Kurdistan whose people endured pitiless efforts by Saddam to physically exterminate them. Nearly 200,000 people were murdered, most famously in the chemical attack on Halabja but thousands of similar villages were bombarded by chemical weapons and razed to the ground.

It's said that the Iraqi Kurds have no friends but the mountains from where their fighters have fought for decades. It's possible that these same mountains could be the source of tourist revenues as the threat of terrorism recedes. There are similar tourism possibilities in the rest of Iraq.

The lingering legacy is one of increased cancers, leukaemia and genetic deformations but they lack specialist health facilities to deal with these in Iraqi Kurdistan or the money to send patients abroad.

After decades of external wars and internal aggression Iraq has an above average number of orphans, widows and disabled people as well as deeply traumatised and mentally ill people.

The one million strong trade union movement wants British trade unionists to help them to stand on their own two feet and reconstruct Iraq.

With its oil wealth, there is no reason why over time Iraq could not have the roads, homes, schools and jobs available in many other parts of the Middle East.

These are key findings of a delegation of senior Labour Party and Trade Union figures who last week held unique summit meetings in Erbil with leaders of the Iraqi Workers' Federation (IWF) and the Iraqi Teachers' Union as well as the Kurdistan Workers' Federation, which kindly hosted our trip.

The first priority is that the unions should have total independence. Iraqi trade union assets have been frozen by Decree 8750 of 8 August 2005 and by the maintenance of Saddam's ban on public sector unions, the old law 150 passed in 1987. The private sector in Iraq is small and the ban on public sector organisation covers about 80% of the workforce.

So unions cannot easily organise or recruit, produce newspapers and other activities that we take for granted. Union leaders have to use Internet Cafes.

Iraqi ministers are seeking to dictate how the unions should organise and union leaders fear that this will "paralyse" independent unions. The first target was the engineers' union who resisted the government rulebook and the coming target is the lawyers' union.

The British government should use its influence to overturn this ban and ministerial interference in unions which totally contravenes International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions as well as the Iraqi constitution. Whatever view we took on the invasion, democracy needs independent unions and democracy is the declared aim of the American and British governments.

The next issue is assistance. British trade unions have already done much. The Fire Brigades Union has sent fire fighting equipment and more is on its way. We also saw a UNISON sponsored "train the trainers" session in Erbil which was just like any session in the UK except for the language.

We presented the IWF with a symbolic lap top ourselves and will also launch an emergency appeal to raise substantial amounts of money for the million Iraqi trade unionists.

We will for example try to keep the IWF newspaper going at a cost of 1,000 a month.

There are many links between our movements. During our visit, the IWF granted honorary union membership to former Labour MP Harry Barnes who
did his national service in Iraq in the mid 50s and who has been a staunch advocate of the needs of the Iraqi labour movement.

We were deeply privileged to meet the representatives of 1 million Iraqis. Not everyone can visit Iraq but we can all listen to the voices and views of this growing movement. We should not let them down.

We ended our trip in Sami Abdul Rahman Park in Erbil where there is a statue to the Iraqi Kurdish party leaders blown up by terrorists. The inscription says that "Freedom is not free." Urgent material and moral assistance to Iraqi unions will do much to help them build freedom in a democratic and federal Iraq.

ends

The trip was kindly funded by UNISON. The delegation were guests of the Kurdistan Workers' Federation and stayed in Erbil and Sulamani. Its members were: Labour MP Dave Anderson who chairs LFIQ and is a past President of UNISON; Sue Rogers who is Treasurer of the NASUWT, sits on the TUC General Council and chairs the TUC's Iraq Solidarity Committee; Harry Barnes, Labour MP for 18 years and joint President of Labour Friends of Iraq (LFIQ); Norma Stephenson who chairs UNISON's International Development Fund and sits on the Labour Party's national executive committee; Councillor Clive Furness who was a founder member of the campaign against repression and for democratic rights in Iraq (Cardri) and visited Iraqi Kurdistan several timers in the 90s; Tim Lezard, a past President of the National Union of Journalists; Gary Kent, Director of LFIQ and Abdullah Muhsin, IWF International Representative.

The above picture is of the delegation and our hosts from the Kurdistan Workers' Federation on the road between Sulamani and Erbil.

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