BY martin thomas
According to the Federation of Workers’ Councils of Unions, reporting on 11 October, health workers in Kerbala (southern Iraq) have held a sit-in protest, after a strike in early October calling for wage rises.
In Nasiriya (also southern Iraq), health workers have struck four times over wages.
FWCUI says: “The strikes in the health sector have expanded to many provinces” as far as Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq.
This revival of the Iraqi workers’ movement — previously very much on the defensive since a small strike wave in early 2005 — is of tremendous importance, and socialists and working-class activists internationally should do all we can to help it.
In the broad picture, however, Iraq is spinning into the abyss much faster than any probable revival of the workers’ movement sufficient to change the direction of the whole society.
The US academic Juan Cole summarises some key indicators:
• 5.6 million Iraqis living below the poverty line — about one-fifth of the population. 2.2 million, nearly 10%, are in ‘absolute and desperate’ poverty.
• Local officials and NGOs put the unemployment rate countrywide to be more than 60 percent.
• The price of basic necessities in Iraq has skyrocketed over the past year... A report by the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) suggests a 70 percent rate of inflation from July 2005 to July 2006.
The economic implosion has come despite vast sums — relative to Iraq’s national income — being spent since 2003 by the US occupation. Most of the money came from Iraqi oil revenues, but the sums are vast. It is just that they have disappeared with very little trace into the pockets of contractors, officials, and security firms.
The simmering sectarian civil war between Shia and Sunni continues to spread. The latest index of deterioration is a proclamation by an ultra-Islamist group within the Sunni-supremacist ‘resistance’ — not necessarily representative of the whole spectrum, but not insignificant either — in favour of a separate Sunni-Islamic state in central Iraq.
“After the Kurds establish their own state in the north and after the Shiite rejectionists have established their confederacy of the middle and the south, with the help of the Jews of the north [Israel] and the Safavids of the south [the Iranians] — they say, a Sunni state should “encompass the governates of Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahedddin, Nineveh and parts of Babel and Wasit”.
The Sunni proclamation came soon after an Iraqi parliamentary vote on 11 October in which the Shia-Islamist majority and their Kurdish allies rammed through (by a narrow majority) a law allowing the formation of further provincial confederacies. This could lead to a semi-independent Shia region in the south. Central Iraq (majority Sunni) would be left as a landlocked, oil-poor rump between that Shia statelet and the Kurdish north, which is already de facto semi-independent.
It would not even be a rational division allowing some accommodation of the sectarian tensions: a very large number of Shia, including possibly a majority of Baghdad’s population, would be trapped in the central rump.
The parliament followed up on Monday 16 October by passing a resolution calling on president Jalal Talabani to intervene to close down the al-Sharqiyah television channel the newspaper al-Zaman, both of which have a mild secular, Arab nationalist tone, and were critical of the ‘confederacies’ vote.
Not only are Iraqi civilians dying by the dozens each day, US troop casualties have also increased recently. This seems to be due to US commanders putting their troops back on the streets more, for example in a recent attempt to ‘reconquer’ Baghdad. But those attempts have been complete failures.
According to the Los Angeles Times (16 October), a high-level US commission, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and due to report to President Bush in early 2007, is liely to call for a big shift in US policy. “It’s not going to be ‘stay the course’”, one member of the commission told the LA Times. “The bottom line is [current U.S. policy] isn’t working... There’s got to be another way.”
Baker himself has said: “There’ll probably be some things in our report that the administration might not like”.
The LA Times says that the commission is looking at two options. One is ‘to try to stabilise Baghdad, boost efforts to entice insurgents into politics, and bring Iran and Syria into plans to end the fighting’. “Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians want a chaotic Iraq, so maybe there is some potential for getting something” says Baker.
“The other calls for a gradual, phased withdrawal of American troops to bases outside Iraq where they would be available for strikes against terrorist organisations anywhere in the region”.
James Dobbins, one of the commission’s advisers, says that: “we need to stop emphasising things like democracy and start emphasizing things like stability and territorial integrity”. Baker himself reckons: “representative government, not necessarily democracy,” should be the aim.
Whether Ahmedinejad’s Iran would want, or even be able, to ‘rescue’ Bush is another matter. And, while there have been many suggestions recently that the USA would happily settle for a military dictatorship in Iraq, that does depend on there being an Iraqi army strong and cohesive enough to create one. There isn’t.
In the meantime, US military commanders talk of maintaining the current (increased) numbers of US troops in Iraq - over 140,000 - until 2010.
The US rulers’ tactical debates sound more like desperate floundering than realistic reappraisal. But some sharp turn or another in US policy over the coming months seems very possible.