Debate and Discussion: STWC and murders of trade unionists

The run-up to Iraq’s elections on 30 January has seen an escalation of bombings and shootings by Sunni ultra-Islamist militias, groups whose leaders condemn polling stations as “centres of atheism” and the whole idea of elections as “pagan”.

Although these militias draw support from Iraqis embittered by the brutality of the US/UK invasion and occupation, many of their attacks are against Iraqi political groups taking part in the elections, such as the Shia-Islamist SCIRI; against Shia as Shia; or against trade unionists and socialists. The militias’ campaign is reactionary.
One of those murdered has been Hadi Salih (pictured), a leading official of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, on 4 January. Many trade unionists around the world have specifically condemned this murder. Labour Friends of Iraq has produced a statement calling on trade unions to withdraw support from the Stop The War Coalition unless it “sides unequivocally with Hadi’s comrades against Hadi’s killers”.

Despite the unwieldy and bloated wording, which piggybacks such LFIQ views as endorsement of “the UN-backed elections and constitution-building process” onto the statement, it is fundamentally right on that immediate issue: defence of the Iraqi labour movement against the Islamist militias. The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty supports the protest against the STWC, with the demur that we do not give political endorsement and support to the “UN-backed” (in fact, US-designed) “constitution-building process”. Our solidarity is with the Iraqi labour movement, and especially with the radical socialist and communist elements of that movement — not with “the process”.

The Stop The War Coalition has circulated an email reply to Labour Friends of Iraq (13 January), and posted responses by Andrew Murray, Lindsey German, Sami Ramadani, and Seumas Milne on its website.

The STWC responses are evasive.

Item 1: STWC claims to “have repeatedly denounced the murder of civilians”. When? Where? Until STWC’s latest statements on Hadi Salih — squeezed out of it by articles by Johann Hari in the Independent and Nick Cohen in the Observer, and expressed in letters by Andrew Murray and Lindsey German to those newspapers — never and nowhere. It had condemned killings by the US/UK forces, but not by the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist resistance militias. On the contrary, leading STWC spokespeople such as John Rees and
George Galloway have repeatedly stated their unreserved support for the resistance militias, without any qualifications as regards the killing of civilians. For example, at the Respect fringe meeting at the European Social Forum in November 2004, John Rees stated that he considered it not the business of socialists in Britain to criticise or condemn any tactics the resistance chose.

Item 2: STWC claims (in Lindsey’s German letter to the Observer) that it “has never issued a statement containing the phrase ‘by any means necessary’.” This is one-quarter true. The Scottish Socialist Party’s e-list on 8 October 2004 carried the following message: “The attached statement is to be issued on Monday by the Coalition… It has been endorsed by the officers… Kind regards, Andrew Murray and Lindsey German… The StWC reaffirms its call for an end to the occupation… recognises once more the legitimacy of the struggle of Iraqis, by whatever means they find necessary, to secure such ends”. The text was widely circulated in electronic form. By the Monday in question (11 October), when the text appeared in print in the Morning Star, the words “by whatever means they find necessary” had been removed, perhaps in response to the murder of Ken Bigley on 8 October. But before 11 October the STWC officers had endorsed, and made public, a statement including those words.

Item 3: STWC claims that it “has condemned the murder of Hadi Salih, and its perpetrators. We have not been silent”. Actually, STWC was silent, until pushed into comment by the articles of Hari and Cohen. STWC’s method here is the same as on the 11 September 2001 World Trade Centre attack. At the founding meeting of the STWC, its leaders fought hard and successfully to exclude any condemnation of the attack from the campaign’s political basis. Only months later and under pressure, at the first regular conference of the Campaign, did they blandly declare from the platform that “of course” they condemned the attack.

Item 4: STWC claims, in Lindsey German’s letter to the Observer, to “condemn the killing of Iraqi trade unionists”. In fact, before the last few days, the only comment by STWC leaders on the Iraqi trade unions had been denunciation, of a sort that suggested that activists of those unions were fair targets for the resistance. George Galloway condemned the British representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions as a “Quisling” (Morning Star, 2 October 2004), equating him with Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who as Minister-President of Norway under Nazi occupation during World War Two crushed the Norwegian labour movement. The 8–11 October official STWC statement was more mildly worded, but condemned the IFTU for “its view that genuinely independent trade unionism in Iraq can develop under a regime of military occupation” — a condemnation which implied that neither the IFTU nor any other Iraqi union body, such as the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, could be considered “genuinely independent”. STWC carries on its website a letter about Hadi Salih’s killing by Guardian contributor Sami Ramadani, who in his writings and speeches defines the IFTU as not a genuine trade union movement but instead “Vichyist” (like the Nazi-allied regime in the part of France not under Nazi occupation during World War Two, which suppressed the unions in its domain and replaced them with fascist-style labour fronts) or akin to the government-controlled fake unions in Francoist Spain.

Item 5: STWC claims (via Lindsey German) that “we did our best to ensure that the Iraqi trade union speaker invited to the European Social Forum [in November 2004] was able to be heard, and publicly criticised those who disrupted his meeting”. Another quarter-truth. German and others did oppose the small group that forced the shutting-down of the whole plenary on the occupation of Iraq. But their alternative (as expressed in a widely-circulated letter by Sami Ramadani) was a mass walk-out from the meeting when al Mashadani’s turn came to speak. Let the meeting go ahead, but, as far as possible, deny al Mashadani a hearing.

Item 6: STWC suggests that all those who criticise it are pro-war and pro-occupation, and that what they say can be condemned more or less out of hand for that reason.
Hari and Cohen supported the 2003 war. Labour Friends of Iraq, though most of its main activists did not support the war, and some actively opposed it, fronts up its website with a report of Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell being among the featured speakers at the meeting where LFIQ first emerged in public, at the Labour Party conference in September 2004. It helped Blair win a statement of consent to his (i.e., to Bush’s) Iraq strategy at that conference.

None of that means that what LFIQ, Hari, or Cohen say about the Iraqi labour movement is wrong, any more than STWC’s support for the reactionary Islamist militias means that everything STWC says about the US/UK occupation is wrong.

During the Cold War, the Communist Parties would often seek to dismiss condemnations of the repression of independent labour-organising efforts in the USSR and Eastern Europe by saying that those condemnations came from right-wingers and supporters of Western governments. STWC is continuing the same shameful method of argument.

In any case, how would STWC reply to AWL? We opposed the war, we oppose the occupation, we oppose Blair — and we support the Iraqi labour movement, and oppose the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias. What is STWC’s response to that position?

In Iraq there is a sharp conflict between the newly-re-emerging labour movement — in all its factions, reformist and revolutionary — and the Islamist and neo-Ba’thist militias.

The militias are not a national liberation movement with unfortunate excesses on its margins, as the STWC statement implies. They are sectarian, communalist, and reactionary.

They hinder, rather than help, the re-establishment of Iraqi sovereignty. Some of them plainly fight more for Sunni domination, against the Shia majority of Iraq’s population, than for any species of Iraqi national self-determination. Any of them, if triumphant, would destroy even that limited room to operate which the Iraqi labour movement has under the sordid conditions of the US/UK occupation and the Interim Government. No Islamist state has ever allowed free trade unions to organise.

We have to choose. If we take the negative cause of “giving the USA a bloody nose” as paramount, then we will see the militias to be the liberation movement, and the Iraqi trade unions to be outright “Quislings” or at best an unimportant group whose destruction, if regrettable, is a reasonable price to pay for the triumph of the liberation movement. If the positive causes of freedom and power for the Iraqi working class, and freedom and democracy for the peoples of Iraq, are paramount, then the Iraqi labour movement is the liberation movement, or the potential liberation movement, and we stand with it against the Islamists.

Britain’s trade unions took a decision to support the Iraqi labour movement at the TUC in September 2004, and should follow it through. Whatever good work the STWC did in organising anti-war marches in 2003, if it has now become a movement primarily concerned to support the Islamist militias, at the expense of the urgent task of helping the Iraqi labour movement then trade-unionists and socialists should direct their energies elsewhere.

Email circular from STWC

Dear Brother/Sister,

Some of you have received a communication from a group called “Labour Friends of Iraq” soliciting support for a letter cynically using the murder last week of Iraqi trade unionist Hadi Salih to attack the anti-war movement. The authors did not have the courtesy to send this email to the StWC office.

This is a group established to campaign in support of Blair’s Iraq strategy, and against the StWC. A glance at its website will show that it is less a friend of Iraqi labour than a friend of the British government’s occupation policy. The devastation of Fallujah, the killing of Iraqi civilians by the US forces (19 last weekend alone) and the fact that US-British troops are, according to the Iraqi government, responsible for two-thirds of civilian deaths in Iraq are among the issues these “friends of Iraq” ignore. Their initiative is supported by leading pro-war campaigners like Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, and MPs who have backed the government throughout like Meg Munn and Wayne David.

The Stop the War Coalition has condemned the murder of Hadi Salih, and its perpetrators.

We have not been silent. I sent a letter to The Independent on the matter, in response to an article by Johann Hari. Mr Hari has so far blocked publication of the letter in the paper — so much for his commitment to free speech! The letter, along with other correspondence, can be found on our website.

Our priority remains to campaign for the speediest possible withdrawal of the occupying troops from Iraq, which is essential for all Iraqis to have a better life, a genuine democracy and the possibility of security.

Andrew Murray, Chair, STWC