By Martin Thomas
For the first time since early 2005, there are the beginnings of a workers’ upsurge in Iraq. According to the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, several groups of workers have taken action in a wave of the successful strikes over wages and conditions by southern oil workers on 22 August.
“On Sunday 3 September, hundreds of health sector workers struck in Nasiriyah and Umara city (in the south). They demanded higher average salaries and renewed payment of contagious disease compensation.
“The strike continued for three days, but the workers have received nothing but promises... One of the strike organizers, Jassim Muhammed, stressed the willingness of the workers to hold a sit-in in front of official buildings...
“In Al Adhamiya (part of Baghdad) municipal workers started a strike on 30 August in protest at a raid by US troops on their building.
“Workers have struck in the Hilla textile company demanding better salaries...
“For the second time, the gas processing workers in the South Oil Sector have stopped production because an agreement reached early in the month has been breached”.
It is a long way from these limited actions to the workers’ movement being able to take the lead in reconstructing Iraq, but they are a very important start.
The Iraqi workers’ movement operates under conditions which are very difficult, and getting more difficult, but the strikes seem to have been spurred by accelerating inflation.
According to the Iraqi government, consumer prices increased 70% from July 2005 to July 2006. The price of bread has almost tripled, the price of meat has doubled, and prices for gas and electricity increased nearly four-fold.
Across the country, one Iraq child in every four under age five suffers from either "acute or chronic malnutrition”, according to a United Nations report. In rural areas in the south, it’s one in three.
Inflation has been driven by the simmering, escalating sectarian civil war. Truckers, wholesalers, and shops have to raise prices in order to pay protection money to police and militias.
US government plans to wind down their troop numbers on the ground and rely instead on bombing from the air in support of Iraqi government troops have failed.
As of 13 September, the number of US troops in Iraq reached 147,000, a 13% increase on July. General John Abizaid, commander of US Central Command, said that because of worsening sectarian violence, US troop levels of more than 140,000 would be “sustained through to the spring, and then we’ll re-evaluate”.
Yet Pete Devlin, the chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps in Iraq, wrote a report recently effectively saying that even those higher US troop numbers could not gain control. Other US army officers summarised the report as saying that in the province of Anbar (which includes Fallujah), “there are no functioning Iraqi government institutions in Anbar, leaving a vacuum that has been filled by the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has become the province's most significant political force... We haven't been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically - and that's where wars are won and lost."
The United Nations, which has access to statistics from Iraqi morgues and the Ministery of Health, reported that 6,599 persons were killed in political violence in Iraq in July and August — a 13% increase over the previous two months.
According to the Los Angeles Times (16 September), some officials in the US government “frustrated by the lack of progress, have voiced a private view in recent weeks that Iraq might be better off under a traditional Middle Eastern strongman. ‘But that's not the policy,’ said [another] official, discussing the idea of changing governments again. "The policy is to prevent that from happening by making this government succeed”.
Manfred Nowak, a UN investigator on torture, reports: "The situation as far as torture is concerned now in Iraq is totally out of hand. The situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it had been in the times of Saddam Hussein".
Nobody in Iraq is safe. Buses and cars are stopped at checkpoints and Sunni or Shia are killed after a glance at their identity cards. Many of the bodies in the morgues show signs of torture. Some come from prisons run by the US and the Iraqi government, some from killings on the streets by the sectarian “resistance” militias.
The reviving workers’ movement is the only alternative to the torturers, both those of the occupation and those of the sectarian militias.