On 2 June, Hassan Juma’a, president of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU), made an appeal for support to the world labour movement.
“The Iraqi Oil Minister, Hussein Al-Shahristani, has ordered the transfer of eight Oil Union activists. They used to work at the oil refineries in the south. This act reflects the minister’s anti-union policy, and lack of respect for unions and union activists in the oil sector...
“This act is clear evidence that the Iraqi state seeks to liquidate trade unions in this important Iraqi economic sector, oil. It is important to note that the south is the main source of oil in Iraq. The oil sector there employs more than 39,000 workers.
“The Iraqi state has no intention of allowing an oil trade union in that sector because it represents a threat to its authority. We call upon you from all parts of the world to stand with us, for the sake of labor and workers interests”.
According to Ben Lando of Iraq Oil Report, Shahristani’s orders are part of a bigger plan by the Baghdad government to get a closer grip on the Basra oil industry.
“The Basra provincial council [has] protested against the central government’s decision to remove the head of the Southern Oil Company. The initiative was headed by Fadila, an Iraqi Shia Islamist party [strong in Basra, hostile to the Baghdad government, and with some influence in IFOU].
“The removal of [the top manager] is likely part of an across the board firing of the Basra workforce in the oil and gas and transportation sectors. [There are] reports that any worker with more than 25 years of service will be fired... As Iraq’s most experienced and knowledgeable workers are fired, Iraq is signing deals with international companies to do a number of service projects...
“It’s also likely the workers brought in to replace those who are fired will be members of the Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq [the main Shia-Islamist parties in the Baghdad government], thus shoring up control and numbers before provincial elections are held [in October]”.
The even bigger plan is for the Baghdad government to “harden” the Iraqi army and flex its muscles. That started in March with an Iraqi army attack, backed by US and British forces, on alleged strongholds in Basra of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army movement.
The public rationale for the attack, that it was an attempt to suppress “militias”, was hypocritical, since members of the ISCI militia, the Badr Army, were more or less openly recruited into the Iraqi army to replace large numbers of soldiers who deserted rather than join the attack. It ended in a stand-off - negotiated in Iran, under Iranian government auspices - which seemed to amount to a political victory for Muqtada al-Sadr.
The Baghdad government and the USA followed up with an attack on Muqtada’s stronghold, the huge Sadr City area of Baghdad, in April. But that too ended in a stand-off, negotiated on 11 May.
Around the same time the Baghdad government announced an offensive against Sunni-sectarian militia domination of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, north of Baghdad. According to US academic Juan Cole, “[prime minister] Al-Maliki’s campaign resulted in no major battles”. The Sunni sectarians demonstrated their continued vitality on 2 June when they used a car bomb to attack the provincial police HQ, killing 9 and wounding at least 46.
Underlying all these skirmishes is probably a drive by the USA to try to “cash in” on the limited military successes since August 2007 of the US troop “surge” in order to get some political consolidation (absent so far), and to boost the Baghdad government in the run-up to the provincial elections and decisions on a deal to replace the UN authorisation for US troops in Iraq, due to expire on 31 December, with an Iraqi government authorisation.
According to the Arabic-language newspaper Al Hayat, as translated by Juan Cole, the US wants the deal to give US troops complete freedom of movement in the country and authorisation to dominate Iraqi air space up to 29,000 feet; to arrest and detain any Iraqi whom the US believes represents a threat; to launch military operations to chase alleged terrorists without seeking Iraqi government permission; and to have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for American troops, contractors and corporations in Iraq.
The USA offers no undertaking that it will defend Iraq from any outside attack unless it is convinced about the nature of that attack, and no promise to defend democratic institutions in Iraq.
Even groups like ISCI, who were working with the US well before the 2003 invasion, and assuredly want US troops to remain into 2009 in order to protect the Baghdad government within which ISCI has ministries, are protesting about these terms. Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement organised a big demonstration against the draft deal on Friday 30 May, though al-Sadr carefully defines his aim as “a timetable” for US withdrawal rather than an immediate pull-out.
Socialists should oppose the draft deal. At the same time we must be clear that the aim is to help the Iraqi labour movement promote democratic self-determination against both the US troops and the sectarian militias, not to tip Iraq into the hands of those militias.
A recent paper by Reidar Vissar, an expert on the Shia movements in Iraq, gives a sobering picture of the Sadrist and kindred movements, the detail all the more telling because Vissar’s main argument is that the Sadrists are more pragmatic than they seem and that the USA should try to do deals with them.
“One of the hallmarks of the Sadrist movement, as it emerged [historically] was a high degree of social conservatism... This included a special focus on Islamic social codes, such as wearing the hijab and abstaining from alcohol... [They] went further than many others in prescribing Islamic morality for the entire Iraqi community [insisting for example that] Jews and Christians should also wear the hijab... Gypsies — a minuscule minority in Iraq — were singled out for admonishment by Sadr and his representatives.
“Another important Sadrist characteristic was a strong focus on Iraq and Iraqi nationalism”.
Fadila, a splinter from the same Sadrist root as Muqtada’s movement, may be the least sectarian of the various clerical-fascistic groups in Iraq. Both Fadila and Muqtada’s movement are enlightened and reasonable compared to the Sunni-sectarian militias.
Yet Viisar reports: “[Fadila leader] Yaqubi’s rhetoric at times can come across as stern in its adherence to conservative values, and sectarian in its focus on the Shiites as a community...
“Yaqubi has emphasised the importance of reconciling the concept of clerical rule with Iraqi nationalism”, but this means only that “any system of clerical rule in Iraq would have its capital in Iraq itself, not in Iran”.
According to Yaqubi, “Iraq will be the capital of the State of the Mahdi” — the “lost” Twelfth Imam from the ninth century, whose return to rule the world is expected by Shia enthusiasts in the same sort of way as Jehovah’s Witnesses look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. The Fadila leader also asserts that “the international Zionist conspiracy has as one of its aims to prevent the Christians of the West to join the movement of the promised Mahdi.”
A senior figure in Muqtada’s movement has also outlined a constitutional draft for Iraq that features a veto-wielding body of clerics on top. Shia clerics, of course. Apart from anything else, a call for Shia clerical rule in Iraq cannot but be deeply sectarian in a country with a very large Sunni minority.