Don’t tell Faleh Abood Umara or Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein that you want the U.S. to quit Iraq, but that you’re worried about a resulting civil war.
The two Iraqi labor leaders, currently in Philadelphia as part of a U.S. tour sponsored by a coalition of American labor unions called U.S. Labor Against the War, say the U.S. is the cause of all the violence in Iraq, and argue that the sooner U.S. forces leave their country, the sooner things will start to get better.
“Did the occupier find us fighting each other when they came to Iraq?” asks Hashmeya, who is president of the Electric Utility Workers Union of Iraq. “No. The fighting among Iraqis started two and a half years after the Americans came.”
Faleh, general secretary of the Southern Oil Company Union based in Basra, agrees, saying that while the U.S. claims to be trying to quell the violence, “actually, since the U.S. has come into Iraq, they have done everything they could to encourage sectarian strife.” He asks, if Iraqis are just a bunch of sectarian fanatics, “How did we manage to get along in the past?”
Faleh, whose own brother was killed in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, accuses the U.S. of adopting policies that encourage divisions in Iraq, and of working covertly to foster more domestic violence.
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Hashmeya, who regularly faces death threats, and threats to kidnap her seven-year-old son, for her part accuses not just the U.S, but also Britain, Israel, “and Iraq’s neighbors” of all working covertly to encourage the violence in Iraq. “They all have an interest in destroying the country,” she says angrily. A frequent international traveler, she notes that Iraqi and U.S. border control authorities make people leaving the country go through five or six checks, but that entering the country requires just one perfunctory showing of a passport. “They make it very easy for people to come into the country,” she says.
At the same time that they blame the U.S. for the chaos in their country, Faleh and Hashmeya also say that the situation is being misrepresented in the U.S. media, which focuses on the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. Of an average 1000 attacks in Iraq each week, only about 30 are by Iraqis against other Iraqis. The rest are attacks on American and British forces.
“We were happy to be rid of Saddam,” says Faleh, “but now the U.S. should get out of our country. Iraq’s number one problem now is the U.S. presence there.”
The two union leaders, who both worked in the banned Iraqi labor movement under Saddam Hussein before the U.S. invasion in 2003, note that the U.S. conquest of their country did nothing to improve the position of workers. Under the Coalition Provisional Authority headed by L. Paul Bremer, a Saddam-era ban on labor unions was left on the books, and continues to be in effect today. U.S. forces have fired on and killed workers demonstrating for their rights, while a decree in 2005 authorized the seizing of all union property.
Despite the ban on union activity in Iraq, and the hostility of both U.S. occupation forces and the current Iraqi government, Iraq’s union movement has grown, and oil workers have had some success in preventing the wholesale privatization of the country’s oil industry and its handover to foreign corporate control. Faleh says his union recently won a victory when its members struck in Basra in opposition to the oil privatization plan. “The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the workers surrounded, and ordered the army to attack and arrest the strikers,” he says, “but the commander of the Basra region refused and said he would “not arrest anyone who loves Iraq.” At the commander’s urging, the government agreed to put off action on an oil industry law until October, and to sit down and negotiate with the union. Faleh called the action a “big victory” for the union movement.
Asked about talk in the U.S. of an attack on Iran, and about how such an expansion of the war would impact the situation in Iraq, Faleh said, “I don’t think the U.S. will attack Iran. We think that they have mutual interests in Iraq.” Faleh added that the Iraqi union movement has good relations with the Iranian labor movement.
He said a U.S. attack on Iran would have terrible consequences in Iraq, because Iran would act to turn its backers in Iraq against U.S. forces, leading to a huge increase in the violence in Iraq.
“We have come to America to ask you to work for withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq,” Hashmeya told the over 100 assembled union and peace activists at their event in the Friends Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday evening. “People have the right to choose their own destiny. We are asking the U.S. to leave Iraq to its own people.”
Media Note: The Philadelphia Inquirer, which has paid to send its columnist Trudy Rubin all the way to Baghdad to interview Gen. David Petraeus (her column claiming the so-called Bush "surge" has a "chance to work" ran in today's paper)--didn't bother to send a reporter a couple blocks downtown to cover the Iraqi union leaders' talk. Nor did the Inquirer's sister paper, the Daily News, send a reporter. Philadelphians were left with the one-sided view that the U.S. is trying to stem the violence in Iraq.
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