By Tim Pelzer
Vancouver — The wave of protests washing across Iraq constitutes a popular revolt against neo-liberal measures being imposed by rightwing religious parties, according to Akram Nadir, a Vancouver-based international representative for the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI).
Protests have spread like wildfire. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in Al Basra, Baghdad and other large cities. On , over a half million workers protested in Baghdad.
The demonstrations were kick-started by electrical workers demanding an end to government efforts to privatize the state electrical company in northern Iraq, Nadir told the PV in a recent interview. From there, people began taking to the streets across Iraq, protesting electrical blackouts in a country where it can get as hot as 60 degrees and air conditioning and fans are essential items of life.
Since then, new demands have emerged among protestors, such as measures to tackle the country’s severe economic crisis as well as an end to privatization.
“Many workers are still not being paid for months on end in many state and private companies,” said Nadir. “The official unemployment rate is 30 percent but is probably more. Many young people, especially those finishing university, are leaving the country because they cannot find a job.”
Life in Iraq today is worse than it was under US sanctions before the US invasion in 2003, he added.
The rightwing Shiite United Iraqi Alliance coalition government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi plans to privatize 168 state companies at the urging of the World Bank and US, stated Nadir. State companies still dominate over 60% of the economy, especially strategic industries. The Ba’ath Party during the 1970s and ‘80s created a large state sector to develop the country’s economic base that is largely still intact, despite ongoing privatization.
Nadir called this “organized looting” because managers are deliberately running state companies into the ground to create support for privatization.
“They are sabotaging production to weaken the state sector, hiding or destroying production, creating artificial electricity blackouts and water shortages to undermine the credibility of state companies,” he said. “They don’t want to pay the work force to demoralize workers.”
The al-Abadi government is even underfunding the public healthcare system – once touted as the best in the Middle East- to force people to use private clinics.
Many leaders of the religious and nationalist parties that the US placed in power after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 are now billionaire business people.
“What they did was steal state assets indirectly by selling state companies to relatives and family members for next to nothing. Privatization is killing the working class”, charged Nadir. “Workers cannot survive and are demanding an end to privatization”.
People are demanding an end to widespread corruption where government officials and military officers, from top to bottom, are primarily interested in filling their bank accounts through bribes and theft, explained Nadir, who kept his mobile phone open on the table to receive incoming calls from Iraq. “Corruption is worse today than under Saddam Hussein.”
Ahmad al Chalaby Hesya, a member of a parliamentary committee investigating corruption, announced recently that $525 billion (US) in state revenue has disappeared since 2003 and no one knows where it went.
Even the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region was widely condemned for wearing an $80,000 (US) luxury watch while giving a TV speech recently telling people that there is no money to provide basic public services. “People are asking, where did he get $80,000 to buy a luxury watch when people are starving ?” Nadir remarked.
Another demand being made by protestors is for the end of religious sectarianism and the separation of religion and state. The ruling Shiite United Iraqi Alliance coalition – consisting of the Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council – are closely linked to Iran’s government and want to impose a theocratic state. “Iraq has a secular history, and most people do not want conservative Islamic leaders telling them how they should conduct their personal lives or, in the case of women, what clothing they should use.”
“While many people go to the Mosques, it is more out of tradition than a strict adherence to Islamic beliefs,” Nadir explained. Large banners with the slogan “No to Sunnis, No to Shiites – For a Secular State” have appeared at many demonstrations, he added.
“What is remarkable is that Iraqis have poured into the streets despite the risk that security forces would step in,” remarked Nadir. During the Arab Spring that washed over the Middle East in 2011, police and military brutally repressed Iraqi street demonstrations.
Nadir stated that no single organization has been responsible for organizing the demonstrations. “Some are spontaneous and others are organized by trade unions (affiliated to both the FWCUI and the Iraqi Federation of Labour, the country’s two labour groupings). In some places, communists – either from the Iraqi Communist Party or Workers Communist Party – have organized demonstrations.”
The demonstrations are not occurring in the ISIS controlled areas of Iraq where the trade union movement has had to go underground.
Nadir called on trade unionists in North America to support protestors in Iraq. “We cannot survive without international working class support.”