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Anti-occupation activist Ewa Jasiewicz:
Workers' struggles in U.S.-occupied Iraq

March 11, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

EWA JASIEWICZ is a human rights activist and journalist from London who lived in U.S.-occupied Iraq from June 2003 to February 2004. Her reports served as one of the few sources of honest information about what was taking place under the U.S. occupation.

While there, Ewa helped other antiwar activists tour Iraq--including representatives of U.S. Labor Against War, who spoke with fellow Iraqi unionists and returned home with stories of how Iraqi workers have fought for their union rights, and to resist privatization of the Iraqi economy. Much of the time, she lived in Basra, working closely with a crucial union for workers in the oil industry.

Here, Eva talks with Socialist Worker's ERIC RUDER about the reality of Washington's occupation of Iraq--and the struggle of Iraqis to oppose it.

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U.S. OFFICIALS claim that they are bringing democracy to Iraq. Does this square with what you've seen?

THERE'S BEEN no liberation of the Iraqi people in the sense that some of the worst Baathists of the former fascist regime have been re-employed in positions of power and influence.

They've taken positions in various ministries as civil servants, and they are prominent in the managerial class--the people who were repressing workers, getting them killed. The security apparatus is again active using intelligence agents for internal repression. These people have been re-recruited.

[Former occupation administrator]. Paul Bremer came out with a statement while he was still serving that the administration would have to rely on them again, despite the supposed de-Baathification--which really only targeted lower-level Baathists and skipped over higher-level ones that were useful to the occupation. It's common knowledge now that these people have been re-employed.

I don't think the intention of the invasion was ever regime change. There definitely has been a "decapitation" strategy to remove some of the leaders of the Baath regime, and the seconds in command. But the thirds and fourths in the command--people who also have a lot of blood on their hands and a history of tyranny--have been reemployed to administer the country, for the purposes of "business as usual" and to bring in structural adjustment programs from the International Monetary Fund, the free market and free trade.

This is all in the orders of Paul Bremer--100 of which were passed from the very beginning of the occupation to the phony handover in 2003. Order number 19 from Bremer addresses freedom of assembly--stating that you cannot have free assembly, a demonstration or a protest without the permission of a commander. So for Iraqis to even go out into their own streets and protest is unlawful.

The media is completely controlled--as, for example, when the occupation authorities decided to close down Moktada al-Sadr's newspaper, which sparked street demonstrations. That's just one incident out of many. Al Jazeera has been kicked out of the country. But also, small homegrown newspapers that are critical of the occupation have had their editors imprisoned or tortured.

It's worth mentioning that there's been a split between those Baathists who are useful to the occupation--who want to save their own skin, want to make money and are willing to collaborate with the occupation--and those who are part of the resistance and fighting back.

WHAT DID Iraq's January elections actually accomplish?

INITIALLY, THE United Nations reported that elections were possible six months after the invasion. This report was ignored, and one of the central demands of a lot of Iraqis--not just the Shia--was for democratic elections so that people with a history of fighting the Baath regime and with credibility in their community could be given some power.

This didn't happen, but there were massive demonstrations for this. I was in Basra, and there was a huge demonstration in January 2004 when people came out of Hayania, which is the equivalent of the Sadr City suburb of Baghdad.

People were demanding democracy and elections, and [the Shiite cleric] Ayatollah al-Sistani was one of the biggest proponents of this. He was very popular and still is--though he's lost a bit of his popularity because he remained silent about so many atrocities committed by occupation forces. But he wouldn't meet with Bremer. He boycotted him. He was telling people not to join political parties and instead work within communities to build up power from the grassroots.

In June 2003, U.S. occupation forces appointed a governing council that was organized along ethnic, religious and tribal lines. It was handpicked. More than half were exiles who were living outside Iraq. Some hadn't lived in Iraq for 30 years, so whole generations didn't have a clue who these people were.

Occupation officials described this as an attempt to represent Iraq in all its "diversity," but what it was doing was creating sectarianism and asking people to identify along ethnic and religious lines. Then there was another interim governing council brought in, and another one after that--and along the way, you had people weeded out who were considered "disruptive," not "on message," or not supporting the ends of the occupation fully.

Two such people--the minister of communication and the minister of industry--were unequivocally opposed to privatization. They regarded such measures as illegal because there was no popular mandate from the people. And they lost their seats.

So you can see the occupation administration going through a filtration process. The January election was part of that process.

The governing councils served to impose on the Iraqi people political parties and forces, many of which had no standing, popularity or reputation. They set the political stage and the parameters of views with which people were allowed to identify. Any candidate standing also had to accept Bremer's constitution--which implied that you had to accept his 100 orders, even though these orders are illegal under international law.

Sistani declared a fatwa against this constitution initially, and then came out in support of the elections. This contradiction comes from a deep belief that any kind of democratically elected government is going to refuse and reject these orders.

Everyone I spoke to who supported the elections was also anti-occupation. They saw the election as a great first step to ending the occupation and changing the constitution, and they believe that there can be some kind of democratic forms. I don't know if they had the full details about the structure of the occupation itself--and how much effort and finance and killing has gone into keeping Bremer's orders and structural reforms on the agenda.

Hassan Juma'a Awad, the president of the Basra oil union, told me that the people who voted in the elections are just as hostile to the occupation as those who didn't. And I think there's respect for both the people who voted and those who didn't.

WHAT'S LIFE like for ordinary Iraqis in Basra?

THE SECURITY situation in Basra is very different from a place like, say, Falluja. There aren't regular attacks and military operations going on.

I was staying in working-class neighborhoods. Life was hard. There was no proper sanitation or sewage. There were big piles of rubbish rotting in the streets, uncollected. People have to buy water. If they're lucky enough to have a water filter, then they could drink the water from the tap, but then it was saline and disgusting. Poor families are forced to drink the tap water if you can't afford to buy it. This water makes your skin really flaky, and people's hair was falling out--I lost a lot of hair.

Most people are unemployed. Hassan Juma'a Awad says that the unemployment rate is about 50 or 55 percent. The electricity still cuts in and out, and much of it is diverted to Baghdad, just as it was under the former regime. Baghdad always got most of the electricity.

Hospitals are in a really bad state. And there's a lot of corruption. Because NGOs no longer operate, which is a real shame, humanitarian assistance is all controlled by the occupation itself. Hospitals still lack basic provisions and medicines, especially for chronic illnesses. This was a problem from the very beginning of the occupation because of the legacy of the genocidal sanctions since the first Gulf War, which destroyed Iraq's infrastructure and debilitated medical services. That hasn't changed.

The diet of most Iraqis is dependent on very basic food, and there's a lot of malnutrition. Occupation authorities want to eliminate the country's food ration--under the terms of the structural adjustment plan that the IMF has written up for Iraq to deal with its "debt"--and replace it with a cash subsidy.

The ration is a survival package for Iraqi families that contains rice, flour, baby milk, salt, sugar, tea, some beans. While I was there, even this was quite erratic--sometimes, there wouldn't be any baby milk, sometimes, there wouldn't be any beans. Once, there wasn't any rice, which was catastrophic, because this is a staple of the Iraqi diet.

Everyone gets this food ration, and some families sell part of this ration to bigger families so they can buy shoes for their children, clothing, medicine--so it's a really crucial resource. The effect of the cash subsidy will be to empower the puppet government to "play" with the standard of living--with the price of life--by changing the price of food and rent at its whim. And they're also going to remove the gasoline subsidy, which will further put the screws to people.

This is also intended to create a dependency and a legitimization of the government, because people will have to go to the government for financial help. I think it's also a way of cracking the resistance. People are able to fight back and survive because they have the physical presence of food in their homes every month, and they know it's going to be there.

If that's taken away, what you also do is break people's means of subsistence and force them into accepting slave wages just to survive.

COULD YOU talk about the union battles that you're familiar with?

ONE AREA where workers have traditionally been incredibly repressed, endured an incredible level of surveillance and lost many of their comrades has been the oil industry.

In the south, I worked with a union called the Southern Oil Company Union (SOCU). This union is a militant, non-sectarian, uncompromising union. I was doing seminars with them about workers' rights according to the International Labor Organization, giving them information about Bremer's orders, and also sharing with them U.S. Labor Against the War's "Corporate Invasion of Iraq" report, which deals with the corporations trying to privatize Iraq.

SOCU immediately began de-Baathification at the grassroots level in their industry, throwing out old managers. In August 2003, they went on strike over low wages. At that point, they would have been paid according to the emergency wage table, which was $60, $100 or $120 per month, depending on which tier you were in. This is low, but I also know that wages weren't being paid on time, and sometimes, they were paid in dinar, sometimes in dollars.

There was also a huge fuel and electricity shortage, and the price of cooking gas had rocketed upward, so people rioted for three days. There was a general strike during those three days in August. Basra was burning.

SOCU doesn't belong to any political party and isn't dominated or controlled by any political party, and it doesn't belong to any union federation either. It has formed its own federation of sorts. That's the Basra Oil Union, which represents 23,000 workers and has workers in 10 different national oil companies in Iraq.

Its agenda is, of course, better health and safety conditions and better wages, but it also opposes American and imperialist domination of the oil reserves.

Oil workers in Iraq have a very high level of consciousness about their own strength and power in the Iraqi economy. They have the power to shut down the oil industry and oil exports if they want--and they've done it twice now. The first time was during the general strike I mentioned, and the second time was to express their opposition to the U.S. attack on Sadr's forces in Najaf. This started as an autonomous strike and then was fully supported by the union.

SOCU threw out Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR)--a subsidiary of Halliburton--because they didn't want any foreigners in their workplace. That happened in the first few weeks of the occupation. Even to this day, there's no KBR whatsoever in the workplaces they have organized.

They also threatened to join the armed resistance if their wages weren't raised. And they created their own wage table that they deemed a living wage. This was eventually accepted because of their capacity to strike and shut down oil exports--I think this was more important than their threat to join the armed resistance.

The story of Iraq is the story of ruling-class oppression that affects workers the world over. Working-class people created these places in the very first place. They created them with their own hands--these power stations, oil refineries--and they are the ones who will reconstruct them in the future, using materials brought to them by international corporations making a massive profit.

These companies exist to control profit and to control people's labor and their lives, and they are not needed. Working class people can do it themselves. They have the knowledge, but they just don't have the instruments.

IN THE U.S., the Iraqi resistance is portrayed as terrorist gangs that target civilians. Does this picture accurately reflect what's going on?

THE FEDERATION of Workers' Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) has always said--along with the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq--that the occupation is perpetuating and deepening a lot of very pathological resistance.

Most people are unemployed in Iraq, and the infrastructure is still devastated. This is an obstacle to a genuine and vibrant workers' movement. If most people aren't working, it's hard to organize in the workplace.

The FWCUI is definitely anti-occupation. I don't know to what extent the influence of the Workers' Communist Party (WCP) is a controlling one within the FWCUI, but they definitely have a very large part in it, and are the organizational force for it. They are resolutely against occupation and demand an end to it.

But at the same time, the WCP has a very dubious position on the Iraqi resistance. They talk about the Iraqi working class as if it isn't part of the resistance--and as if workers are trapped between two poles of terrorism: the occupation on the one hand, and the Islamic resistance on the other.

This kind of homogenized view of the resistance and this kind of dichotomy they're creating is a false one and is unhelpful. It doesn't allow much debate for the nature of the resistance, its different elements.

The resistance may not have a strong secular nature. It's largely Islamic. But not everybody fighting jihad wants an Islamic state. Not everybody fighting or organizing through their religion wants an Islamic state.

People are organizing at the local level around the mosque and through the mosque. This has been an organizational forum and space for decades in the Middle East. It plays into the hands of the occupation to have the resistance rejected and demonized as a purely Islamic force that is going to drive everybody back to the dark ages.

It's not a unified resistance movement with a unified political aim. In fact, one of the biggest critiques of the resistance is that it doesn't seem to have a political platform and seems inchoate. There have been centers of leadership and organization formed, but I don't know the nature of those.

I would say the Baathist element of this resistance is probably quite strong, because they've been getting regular injections of capital from overseas and wealthy Baathists--and the more inchoate, random and autonomous elements that predominated in the beginning have, I think, largely run out of ammunition now. Now they're being forced to be a part of some bigger movement.

SOME PEOPLE in the antiwar movement say that they're opposed to the occupation, but they aren't comfortable with a armed resistance, or one that has religious or political views they don't agree with. What do you make of this?

I THINK this confusion happens naturally when you don't have an understanding of a different cultural context. People tend to imagine the kind of people they're talking about in terms of what they know from the media or from academia.

The situation on the ground is so different. These are just ordinary people fighting, and it has to be remembered that it is a grassroots movement. Whatever political agendas might be involved in the leadership of the resistance, the people that make that resistance successful are also the people who are dying and fighting at the grassroots level. They also have interests, and they also have agendas.

When it was reported on the news that Moktada al-Sadr's followers invaded Najaf, the media portrayed this as if these people were following a charismatic god, and they had no interests of their own or no class interests. That fit into the stereotype of Islamic fanatics.

It serves the interest of the ruling class and the occupation to have a one-dimensional image of the resistance--and to not have it understood as a working-class movement. We don't have to like the resistance. They aren't obliged to fit our political-ideological framework. I'd be very surprised if they did. It's a country that has a completely different from the U.S. and Britain.

People will fight and social movements will emerge within the specific historical and social context and conditions that they find themselves in--and they're not the same as ours. So they will be Islamic in character, and they might be very reactionary, and there might be support from Iran, and there might be Baathists involved as well.

We can run the risk of being racist or colonialist in our own political outlook. Of course, you and I would like a secular society in Iraq. I want to see a libertarian society. We shouldn't think that these forces and ideas don't exist, but we should also be conscious of people coming from their own context and conditions.

Iraqis have a right to resist. It's absurd to think they don't. If people read some history--their own history and the history of all liberation struggles against colonial regimes in the world--they'll realize that violence has been a necessary part of that. I often find that it's people who haven't witnessed the violence of an occupation or even violence in their own specific context who are the first to advocate pacifism.

UNIONISTS IN the U.S. who want to show solidarity with SOCU can find a model resolution to pass in their union local at www.iraqoccupationfocus.org.uk.

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