As Iraq moved to take back political sovereignty, Iraqi trade unionists and women’s organizations condemned bloody terrorist attacks that killed some 300 people and wounded many others at religious observances in Baghdad and Karbala this week.

“These are acts of violence against innocent people, terrorist acts of mass murder,” said Abdullah Muhsin, Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions international representative. “We condemn them utterly. But they will not deflect Iraq’s democratic forces from rebuilding a new secular society.”

The attacks are aimed at destabilizing the situation in Iraq, Muhsin told the World, speaking by phone from London. They can be used by the U.S. occupation to suggest that Iraqis are not capable of self-government, providing “a pretext to stay longer,” he said. In fact, Muhsin said, the U.S. occupation has failed to provide security. “Let us do this by ourselves,” he said. “We will prove that we are capable.”

The bloodshed is “the responsibility of the occupiers,” Clair Meshal, a leader of the Iraqi Women’s League, Iraq’s oldest women’s organization, told the World in a phone interview. Meshal, a longtime political refugee living in London, charged that the U.S. has freed top-ranking “Baath fascists” including Saddam Hussein’s propaganda chief, without trials, allowing them access to media and putting many in important administrative positions. “It’s really unbelievable,” she said. “We are waiting every day for the U.S. to leave our country.”

The deadly attacks came one day after the Iraqi Governing Council announced agreement on an interim law to govern a transitional Iraqi administration after the U.S. occupation hands over power June 30.

The Transitional Administrative Law guarantees a broad range of civil rights and liberties, including freedom of expression and opinion and the rights of assembly and due process. Although it terms Islam the official religion, it guarantees freedom of religion and says Islam is “a source” of the country’s laws rather than the sole source. It also guarantees social and economic rights that many Americans would like to have, including health care, education, and the right to strike.

The interim constitution is a compromise among the widely varying political trends represented on the Iraqi Governing Council. It sets forth a federal structure for Iraq, giving significant authority to individual regions, but leaves many details to be ironed out later. It makes Kurdish and Arabic official languages.

Between now and June 30, in a process yet to be worked out, an interim Iraqi administration will be formed. The transitional law says elections for a new government must take place by Jan. 31, 2005. That elected government will oversee the drafting of a permanent Iraqi constitution. The transitional law sets a goal of having women comprise at least 25 percent of the new legislature.

Muhsin welcomed the new law as a positive step, giving “a chance of rebuilding a new sovereign Iraq.” Building trade unions and other civil society organizations is crucial to building democracy, he said, adding that the Iraqi labor federation is working to consolidate “vibrant, strong and independent trade unions.”

As early as last summer, said Muhsin, “we already had 10 strong unions on the ground,” working actively to promote workers’ rights and well-being. “The new constitution did not come from a void,” he noted.

Two key challenges face Iraq’s union movement in the coming period, said Muhsin. One is waging “an enormous struggle in the face of uncontrollable market forces.” The other is educating Iraqi workers about the need to build a powerful trade union movement. “After 34 years of oppression most Iraqi workers don’t know what a union is,” he said. Today, they suffer mass unemployment or wages that do not even cover rent.

In order to move forward, Iraq needs new technology, re-skilling of workers, new kinds of jobs, Muhsin said. “For this we welcome foreign investment.” But, he emphasized, “Please underline this: foreign investment does not mean privatization.” Iraq’s public sector, which includes the country’s oil riches as well as water, electricity, health and education through university level, should be off-limits to privatizers, he said.

Iraqi women are continuing to organize for their rights and for greater representation in the new Iraqi government. The Iraqi Women’s League, which worked underground during the Saddam Hussein regime, has branches in every town and village. It organized demonstrations against Decree 137, approved last December by only 11 of the 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council. The decree would have turned Iraqi women’s rights “backward about 50 years,” said Women’s League spokesperson Meshal. Because of wide outrage, the decree has now been “frozen,” she said.

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Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.