World unions denounce murder of Iraqi labor leader

News Analysis

Hadi Saleh, international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, was murdered in his Baghdad home, Jan. 4. His hands and feet were tied, he was blindfolded and beaten, forced to kneel, and strangled with electrical wire.

These are the methods used by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, Abdullah Muhsin, IFTU international representative, told the World.

Saleh, 56, a former printer and an Iraqi Communist Party member, served five years on death row in Hussein’s prisons and spent years in exile helping to build Iraq’s underground labor movement. His assassination was “a tragedy against an ordinary, decent man who spent three decades of his life in the struggle” for democracy, Muhsin said emotionally. “For what? Because he wanted to see Iraq free.”

Nevertheless, he emphasized, “We are not intimidated. They cannot silence us.”

Saleh’s murder sparked a strong response from the world labor movement. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called Saleh “a courageous trade unionist fighting for Iraqi workers [who] put aside all thoughts of his own personal safety.”

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and other labor federations also condemned the murder.

Iraqis say they are caught between a brutal U.S. occupation and terrorism by Baathists working to retake power. Many feel the elections set for Jan. 30 represent the best hope for a way out.

In typical recent incidents, the U.S. has admitted “accidentally” killing Iraqi civilians in airstrikes and roadside gunfire. The city of Fallujah was devastated by the U.S. military, with many residents still living in refugee camps. According to a report published last fall in a British medical journal, at least 100,000 Iraqis, mainly women and children, have been killed by occupation-related violence.

Newsweek reports the Pentagon is considering using “Special Forces” death squads in Iraq similar to the ones it employed in Central America in the 1980s.

The IFTU, which represents over 200,000 workers in Iraq’s main industries, is urging its members to vote in the Jan. 30 elections for parties “who advocate labor rights and social policies that benefit working people,” Muhsin said. Noting that those elected will draft a permanent Iraqi constitution, he said it is “of enormous importance to us” to achieve “a constitution that will guarantee the rights of workers, a secular constitution.”

Over 100 groups are running national lists containing more than 7,000 candidates for 275 seats in a transitional assembly. The seats will be filled by proportional representation, with no minimum percentage required to win seats, so most if not all lists, and a range of ethnicities, religions and regions, will be represented in the new body.

The Iraqi Communist Party has fielded a slate of 275 including non-Communists and 91 women.

While there are real concerns about security and participation, a new elected government will have more legitimacy than the present U.S.-handpicked one, says Salam Ali, a member of the ICP Central Committee. The election’s legitimacy comes from the United Nations, he notes — it is prescribed in the political process unanimously approved by the Security Council.

This new government, if it is really independent, unified and backed by the people, can tell the Americans to leave, Ali told the World in a phone interview from London. “Otherwise, we go down the path of internal strife and further bloodshed,” where the people “will pay the price.”

Most Iraqis are sick of the violence by both the U.S. and those carrying out terrorist acts, Ali said. However, attacks on the occupying military forces, he told the British Morning Star last month, are “considered acceptable, although the overwhelming majority of political forces in Iraq are against resorting to armed means so long as political means aren’t yet exhausted.”

At the same time, a wave of deadly car bombings, kidnappings and murders is widely seen as an effort by Baathists to sow chaos, block elections and strong-arm their way back to power.

“If they have a role in the new government,” Ali said, “it will be with the connivance of the U.S. government,” which may be aiming at a kind of “Vietnamization” to maintain its presence while reducing U.S. casualties.

“Let us not forget that the Americans always had the aim of containing, destabilizing and overthrowing the [Hussein] regime, but maintaining the Baathist establishment,” Ali said.

The ICP is renowned for its decades-long resistance to Hussein, enduring torture, murders, jailings and exile. In recent months, some 16 of its members have been assassinated. 'But the party showed its mettle by holding a two-day national conference, or assembly, on Dec. 23-24, the first party conference of this type to be held in Baghdad in three decades. 'Over 250 delegates from throughout Iraq attended. The meeting was organized in great secrecy, and the party provided its own security.

“We made a point to hold the meeting despite security concerns, to prove to other groups that they can and should stand up to blackmail,” said Ali.

The party held a spirited election rally Dec. 17 in a stadium in the center of Baghdad. Organized by word of mouth in two days, it drew 3,000 attendees.

suewebb@pww.org