On the Ground in Basra: An Interview with Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi

By Ali Issa, Originally Posted on Jadaliyya.com ~ Iraqi unions demonstrated yesterday on May Day 2012 at a difficult historical moment. Still operating without a labor law that sanctions their organizing, and under the consolidation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s growing police/military powers, their movement faces an array of antagonistic forces. In this wide-ranging discussion with Ali Issa, Basra-based Hashmeya Muhsin al–Saadawi, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union in Iraq, and the first woman vice-president of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers in Basra, discusses Iraqi security after the US withdrawal, the legacy of the US occupation, the state of union organizing and electricity, and finally the Iraqi protest movement – one of the least covered of the Arab uprisings.

The sectarian quota system to which Ms. al-Saadawi repeatedly refers is a constitutionally mandated “power-sharing” agreement that divides power in almost all of Iraq’s political institutions among “representatives” of various ethnicities, sects, and religions, and was initiated by the Coalition Provisional Authority under Paul Bremer in 2003. This system has also been strongly supported regionally by the governments of Iran and Turkey, just to name a few.

Ali Issa (AI): Has the withdrawal of official US forces changed Iraq’s security situation on the ground?

Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi (HMS): To answer that question, let me start with 31 August  2010, because it was an important step in ending the occupation, and in regaining sovereignty, according to the timetable included in the withdrawal agreement signed by Iraq and the US. On that day, US forces completed their withdrawal from cities, and their mission shifted to training Iraqi forces. Complete withdrawal was then realized on 31 December 2011, leaving only very few troops, whose sole mandate is to “provide training.”

Iraqi security and military forces are still  facing problems including not being oriented properly – which goes back to a few causes, among them that some Iraqi political forces did not want a US withdrawal. There is also the fact that the sectarian quota system is reflected even within the structure of the Iraqi armed forces, while there of course ability and patriotism should be the basis, not loyalty to a party or sect.

The deterioration of the political situation, and the putting off of any serious decisions, the weakness of the Council of Representatives (majlis al-nuwab), in-fighting between winning blocs, and the deadlock that now governs the relationship between them. All that has had negative effects on the strength of the security forces and their role in these difficult and sensitive times.

AI: Are there Iraqi demands, wishes or ideas, with regard to the responsibility of the US government that lead and managed this occupation?

HS: Iraqis lived under a repressive, all-encompassing dictator for over three decades. That regime brought great suffering to Iraq, and the entire region. I do not want to get into this because it has become clear to the whole world (now it is clear to the world, after it had been deaf and blind to the oppression and torture of Iraqis by Saddam and his agents.) We wanted to get rid of this regime, but not through war and occupation. Because all the occupation did was bring new pain: including destroying what was left of the country’s infrastructure, and the undoing of its institutions, opening its borders to killers, terrorists and weapons dealers. As well as planting the seeds of sectarianism that thousands and thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of. Now the occupation is leaving after it has finished its mission and got what it came for. The occupation is the central responsible party in Iraq, but we do not really imagine for one minute that the US government will help with the true crises we have on many levels. So there is no way out except for serious and responsible efforts by forces acting politically in Iraq, both that are in power and outside of it, to deeply reassess the political process and the sectarian quota system on which it is based. Reform of that process, and getting it on the right track, could allow us to build a civil, democratic, united country.

AI: The union movement in Iraq has faced, and is still facing, great challenges from several successive Iraqi governments and the occupation since 2003, like the maintenance of Saddam’s 1987 law that criminalized independent union organizing. But in the face of all this, parts of that movement were able to launch a successful and populist campaign against the “Oil and Gas Law” from 2006-2009. What are the movement’s greatest challenges now?

HMS: Under the past regime, there was no union organizing in the public sector due to the terrible “Labor Law 150” of 1987. After that regime fell, the workers quickly put together unions in the public sector, worked very hard, but faced many agendas the US occupation brought with it. The occupation launched several consecutive attacks against the union movement: the attacks on the Baghdad headquarters of the General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq by occupation forces, the parliamentary order 8750 in 2005 that froze the accounts of that federation, then the ferocious attack on the oil and electricity unions – that stated anyone unionizing in the public sector could be charged under article 4-2 of the anti-terrorism law.

The union movement challenged the “Oil and Gas Law” project and launched a campaign, aided by patriotic forces, Iraqi academics, and international labor allies, that revealed the faults with this law and the parts that needed to be revised. We are not against the passing of a law that includes that rights of the people and protects our oil wealth, and reinforces the role of the “Iraq National Oil Company” [Iraq’s public oil company which has been government owned since 1972].

At the same time, The General Federation of Trade Unions in Iraq launched a campaign to pass a labor law that is fair for workers and that matches work standards and international agreements. A proposal for this law was introduced in 2005, and the parliament and the government are still dragging their feet and playing with it. They have removed key parts, including not covering the public sector for union organizing as well as deleting the section on non-union workers’ role, until in its present form it no longer meets international standards.

Most recently, the electrical worker unions in Basra launched a campaign called “Social Security is the Right of Every Iraqi” relying on constitutional rights, which is supported by some international friends, the Federation of Unions in Holland being one of them.

AI: What is the situation with electricity like on the ground?

HMS: The issue of electricity has remained a daily battle. A sad thing that has become great fodder for sarcasm. It bears mentioning the gap that Saddam’s regime left—with its foolish policies and destructive wars—and the subsequent terrorist attacks that have targeted generators and grids. Most recently, there has been a gross exaggeration on much money has been spent on this sector, with no tangible results after their promises of improvement.

The Ministry of Electricity had promised a minimum of ten hours a day for ordinary people, based on what is left from State health and security needs. In reality, people get between four to six hours, with some houses getting no power for a full day, or even several days.

The Ministry of Finance estimates that twenty-seven billion public dollars have been spent on electricity since 2003. With all that, the Ministry of Electricity has failed in rebuilding this sector, complicated by the security factor which includes sabotage. This is partly due to a lack of consultation with Iraqis that know what they are doing, as well as mismanagement and widespread corruption. Now, just like every Spring, officials appear on TV and start making their brittle and hilarious promises, with some unionists joking that we might be exporting electricity to our neighbors or even Europe!

AI: What is your opinion of the Arab uprising-style movement in Iraq that started 25 February 2011, and has been called by some “the forgotten uprising?” Did unions participate in the mobilizations? Since recently they have been smaller in number do you think they will come back? Finally, do you have any explanation for the lack of media coverage, even in the Arabic-language media?

HMS: Iraq has seen successive waves of sit-ins, demonstrations, and protest activities. They have been the result of the continued hardships in daily life and lack of services for people, as well as the deterioration of security since April 2003 that I described. On top of all that, are the efforts to limit civil liberties and silence people, while cementing the hated ethno-sectarian-quota system; we consider all this an open and direct violation of the constitution. Many sectors of society have participated in these protests: youth, women, civil society groups, unions, and the newer pro-democracy formations.

The right of citizens to demonstrate, express opinions and take positions is a constitutional right, and the government and its apparatuses should provide the necessary amount of security to whoever is exercising it. It should also listen closely to people’s legal demands and seek to satisfy them. As well as pay attention to their calls for reform of the political process, and correct its course on the path to building a civil, democratic state, based on the text of the constitution that citizens voted for in October 2005.

It should be obvious that our Iraq is not isolated from what is happening, in the countries of the region, though it might differ in its internal dynamics and specifics. The storms of change around us have also energized our people to break the wall of silence and take the streets. The role of the youth in this movement has been especially key, with them taking advantage of new social media technology.

But the way the Iraqi government and its apparatuses have treated the protest movements is a serious violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and peaceful protest, and an attempt to stifle the citizens’ practicing of that right. That is when the people understood that the first and last concern of influential ruling political blocs is to look after their own interests, struggle with each other over power, and divide the pie among themselves, without any regard for ordinary people living under cruel conditions in a country whose yearly budget exceeds 100 billion dollars.

The protest actions of 25 February 2011 were a great success, as were the actions preceding and following, in expressing the clear and just demands of the people, despite being exposed to attempts to distort the depth of the movement and its goals. Then there has been the intrusion of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, with all its influence, to try to stop it, the attempts of the government as a whole to abort it, and all the surveillance and incarceration that followed.

Whether to expect the return of the protests depends on the reasons that lead to them breaking out. To this day, none of the protesters’ demands have been met, so if the government continues on its present path, disregarding people’s rights, it is very likely the protests will return.

As for media coverage, there had been coverage from several TV stations, but the government put pressure on them, and shut down some of their offices. In addition, a good number of journalists were beaten by infiltrators at the protests—thugs–while others were arrested and detained. And of course there have been assassinations of journalists – those brave, honorable people– including the writer and poet, Hadi al-Mahdi.

AI: In a recent interview you have talked about your work with “The Iraqi Women’s League.” Have there been developments there?

HMS: I am a member of the women’s league and am proud of my affiliation to this Iraqi organization that has sacrificed so much, and aided in the fight against the Iraqi monarchy and played a big role in the glorious revolution of July, 1958. A few weeks ago, we celebrated sixty years of the league. Right now though, the union work is what takes most of my time.