By Abdullah Muhsin, British representative of the IFTU.
The January 30 election was an historic breakthrough in the development of the new Iraq as a free, democratic and open society. Iraqis defied the totalitarianism of Saddam's loyalists and the fundamentalism of Al Zarqawi, and they refused to heed the advice of cultural imperialists on the hard left who said: 'we know what is good for you! Dare not to disagree with us or else!'
Both they and the Saddamists were simply wrong: 60 per cent of Iraq's population – 8.5 million people – voted. Without intimidation we would have seen an even higher turnout.
Of course, Iraq has not been transformed overnight. Half a million Iraqis in Mosul were denied the vote because of election irregularities and incompetence, and extremist forces are still working desperately to encourage the disintegration of Iraq. After decades of repression, sanctions and war, we are now facing a terrorist network that actually targets trade unionists.
A railway worker has been beheaded, his head placed in his stomach and prominently displayed. My friend and colleague, Hadi Saleh, the IFTU's International Secretary, was tortured and murdered, horribly, by remnants of Saddam's secret police. If Hadi had survived he would have been vindicated by the tremendous turnout at the elections, which defies the extremists.
This election will enable Iraqis to move forward in their battle for a new democratic, federal and united Iraq, governed by a secular constitution and the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and a proper separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and an independent judiciary. A new police force and army that are culturally different from Saddam's repressive apparatus are being trained and will be ready by the end of the year.
But the political key to defeating sectarian violence is to develop a secular constitution that accommodates the aspirations of all Iraqis, including the Iraqi Kurds, for autonomy within a federal structure. Will Islam be the main source for the new constitution? Compromise must be reached here. Iraq has many other religious communities and discrimination against non-Muslims would be unjust.
The success of Iraqi nation-building also lies with the growth of civil society. Genuine democracy cannot be imposed from above but must be built from below, through a strong social movement composed of free political parties, non-governmental organizations, environmental agencies and free unions.
Iraq's economy was abused by Saddam and pulverised by his wars, the consequent sanctions and then the invasion in 2003. It's a mess. All sectors need rebuilding with foreign investment but national assets must remain publicly owned. We urgently need to diversify – 95 per cent of our income currently derives from oil. We need to become part of the international community rather than the nasty and vicious backwater that Iraq was under Saddam. This is why we value being an integral part of the international trade union movement.
Yet many Iraqi workers remain suspicious of the very term 'union', because of the repression they endured at the hands of Saddam's 'yellow unions' – part of the state machine of terror. To remedy this, we will launch an Iraqi workers' touring theatre company to promote the basic tenets of trade unionism. Right now, the new unions have little or nothing. Some have buildings, but they are in severe disrepair after the war and subsequent looting. We need computers and fax machines.
The TUC has launched an appeal for Iraqi unions, and recently held a conference to boost solidarity and help us train our members and officers. Unison, Amicus, the RMT and the FBU have been at the fore of providing practical solidarity and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
We are growing in this more fertile political climate. The IFTU now represents 12 individual unions and has a membership of at least 200,000. The new and independent teachers' union has 75,000 members in Baghdad alone and 16 branches throughout Iraq. The Kurdistan Workers Syndicate Union has about 100,000 members. We all work together for a federal, democratic and secular Iraq. Perhaps most significantly to left-wing critics of the war, we are mobilising to persuade the incoming Assembly to enact a progressive labour code that will allow workers to challenge the economic occupation of our country.
Iraq is being reborn, at last. The road has been bloody and remains fraught with danger. A strong labour movement is vital to our goal of rebuilding Iraq on the basis of social justice and unity.