New Internationalist

The death of Hadi Saleh

Issue 376

WHEN they came for Hadi Saleh, they found him at home in Baghdad with his family. First they bound his hands and feet with wire. Then they tortured him, cutting him with a knife. He finally died of strangulation, but apparently that wasn’t enough. Before fleeing, his assailants pumped bullets into his dead body.

No group claimed credit for his assassination on 4 January this year. Nobody knows for sure who carried it out. But for many Iraqis, the manner of his death was a signature.

Iraq has never been a very safe place for trade unionists, socialists or democraticminded people. In one of the few times when Iraqi progressives seemed to be on top (in 1958) they finally threw out the king. For a few years, organizing unions and breaking up the big estates were not just dreams but government policy. Oil was nationalized and the revenue used to build universities, factories and hospitals. That vision of Iraq shaped the political activists of Saleh’s generation and still holds their loyalty today.

Photo: David Bacon
The growth of Iraqi labour and women's organizations is being attacked by both Iraqi insurgents and the US occupation. These workers in the State Leather Factory in Baghdad are explaining how hard it is to survive on the wages dictated by the US occupation. Photo: David Bacon

Some 35 years ago, Saleh’s vision led to his being arrested, accused of being a trade unionist and a ‘red’ by the Ba’athist Government that Saddam Hussein would one day lead. Narrowly escaping execution, he spent five years in prison. On his release he joined many of his compatriots who’d already fled into exile, where he lived for over 30 years.

When Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athists finally fell, Saleh and his friends returned to reorganize the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. He became its international secretary. And even under a brutal US military occupation, they began seeking ways to turn into reality that old dream of a progressive Iraq.

In two years the IFTU has organized 12 national unions for different industries and successfully challenged the US occupation’s low-wage regime. But success has had its cost. Saleh’s murder is the latest in a series of attacks on workers and unions: a response to their increasing activity. Attacks come from US troops and the Iraqi Government as well.

By making him a bloody example, Saleh’s murderers had two objectives. For the Ba’athists among the insurgents, the growth of unions and organizations of civil society - from women’s groups to political parties - are dangerous deviations. Their hopes of returning to power rest on a military defeat for the US without a corresponding development of popular progressive organizations that can govern a postoccupation Iraq.

Trying to stop those organizations from using the elections to organize a support base is a second objective. None of Iraq’s new unions support the armed resistance and they all call for an end to the occupation. But even progressive Iraqis disagree about the elections.

Some, like the Union of the Unemployed, boycott the process as a charade organized by the occupation. But others on the Iraqi Left think a mass-based political party with a radical program could win the actual power to implement it once the occupation is gone. Organizations from the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), to which Saleh belonged, to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq of Shi’a Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani see elections as a vehicle for winning power. That is why in exile the ICP condemned the war and US invasion but when the occupation started it joined the Governing Council. Indeed, two of its members were ministers in the Allawi interim government.

The armed resistance doesn’t want them around. And, despite talk of democracy, another dependable dictator would be more palatable to the Bush Administration than popular resistance to the free market plan. Saleh’s assassination makes plain the extreme lack of security of Iraqi leftists caught between the two.

David Bacon

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