Labour delegation meets Iraqi trade unions

There is a Dwarfs’ Association in Iraqi Kurdistan. It seemed odd at first but Saddam’s actual use of weapons of mass destruction continues to wreak biological havoc and this Association combats the stigma. A recent article for Fortnight magazine.

Nearly 200,000 people died in Saddam’s genocidal campaign to exterminate Iraqi Kurds and there’s also an increased incidence of cancer and leukaemia but no clinics to cope with it or foreign exchange to buy medicines or send people abroad for treatment.

This part of Iraq has had more time to rebuild since Saddam’s forces withdrew after the Gulf War in 1991 when it was protected by Anglo-American jets until what everyone there calls “liberation” in 2003.

But the physical legacy will take time to repair. Power flickers on and off. One minute we were on reasonable roads and the next we hit dirt tracks. Petrol is dispensed from jerry cans at the roadside and petrol stations are rare, a standing insult given the country’s potential fabulous oil wealth. I was somewhat queasy when our driver used these breaks to light up and stretch his legs.

Schools are massively over-crowded. Factories are idle and conceal huge economic inactivity. We toured a cigarette factory with 600 employees but which produces nothing.

Everyone is eager for foreign investment because they don’t have a home-grown bourgeoisie, as the local Communist Party leader argued. We
initially baulked at this emphasis because we weren’t a trade mission but soon came to accept that unions without jobs are irrelevant.

I was reminded of the old saying that there is only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational company – and that’s not being exploited…

External assistance to the unions and other independent groups can help empower them as strong social partners capable of doing deals with international capital to protect workers and the wider community.

No one pretends that this will be easy or that Iraq will somehow find a privileged dispensation in the globalised world order but it’s not rocket science – the more power to their elbow and the fewer rip-offs are possible.

They also made it clear that there are economic no-go zones – education, health and oil should remain in the public domain. They clearly want the foreign troops to go but immediate withdrawal is not a key issue, whatever some western leftists say.

We also saw the remnants of Saddam’s well-tested torture machine when we visited the Red House in Sulamani. Five thousand people died here
and thousands more were brutalised in what was just one of a series of secret police outposts throughout Iraq.

This one is a museum and the last resting place of rotting Soviet tanks and heavy machine guns. A former prisoner is the curator who showed us the still bloodied ropes, jibs and electrodes with which he and many of the ministers and union leaders we met had been terrorised.

None of them was keen to talk about their time inside because they feel it would be immodest given so many people suffered the same experience. Yet they are astonishingly cheerful and are seeking to contribute to building a federal Iraq, as is the Kurdistan Workers’ Union which hosted our trip and which works with the Iraqi Workers’ Federation and the huge Teachers’ Union. Together they now number nearly a million people, up from next to nothing in 2003.

We had a five hour summit meeting with union leaders from Basra, Baghdad and Babel. They started by conferring honorary membership on Harry Barnes, a former Labour MP who did his national service in Basra in the 50s and who became a strong advocate of labour rights in the post-Saddam Iraq.

We then talked turkey as they described how they had rebuilt the labour movement through all the usual tactics from bargaining to strikes and how they are determined to rebuild independent social and political activity, crushed by decades of fascism.

But a central problem is the Iraqi Government. They have retained Saddam’s ban on unions in the public sector which accounts for 80% of the old-style command economy. And last August ministers introduced Decree 8750 which froze their meagre assets and which union leaders fear is an effort to create sectarian client unions.

We will urge the international labour movement to throw its weight behind overturning the ban and the freeze and allowing the unions to be a bulwark of non-sectarianism. This means money as well as the TUC’s new campaign to encourage people to send in their old mobiles and chargers.

Some of us had opposed the invasions, others didn’t but we had come together for this gruelling but encouraging mission to find out what the unions want.

This trip to Iraq brought absolute clarity to me and others. We have a choice. We could bang on about the war but history will best judge it. In the meantime, we will miss a golden opportunity to help Iraqis democratise their country with an impact on the wider region if we don’t make solidarity the key theme.

We flew to and from Iraq via Dubai which is something like a Los Angeles in the desert with modern roads and buildings (as well as a disgruntled migrant workforce). There’s no reason why Iraq’s oil wealth shouldn’t allow it to enjoy the benefits of its natural resources, which previously fuelled a barbaric and aggressive totalitarianism.

The unions can add a decent social justice element to the mix but only if they can marginalise extremists who target union leaders and workers and if Grassroots Iraq receives external support.

Gary Kent travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan as part of a Labour Friends of Iraq delegation which was hosted by the Iraqi Kurdistan unions and funded by Britain’s biggest trade union, UNISON.

  • Rory

    I am breathless. I cannot wait on Gary’s report from Ballymena. Will, I wonder, Tony and George suggest he ascribe dwarfism in that place, also troubled by murderous reigious bigots, to the old mad dictator or will they pull out the leprechaun protocol?

  • m

    Why and how have the comments on this topic been deleted?

    In particular the removal of my 2nd comment outlining Mr Kent’s poor knowledge on the problems/causes of ‘dwarfism’ was entirely unwarranted.

    Seems some can’t stand criticism. I’m unsurprised this is the reaction when a a Labour party hack is challenged over misinformation and self promoting irrelevant blogs.

  • Martin

    Ditto. The deleted comments in no way breached Slugger’s commenting policy.

    This post is so far removed from the stated topic of this blog it seems to have little purposes than publicity for the organisations and individuals involved.

    The removal of the comments was unnecessary and not only against the best traditions of this site but also against the interests of free debate which we all value here.

  • m

    btw. who is the moderating tonight? Was it Gary self protecting or did someone else stifle criticism of his inaccuracies and irrelevance?

    Can I/we (Rory was deleted too) raise the irrelevance to the blog theme, the self promoting nature of the article and the poor understanding of genetics or will it be deleted again!

    Should I bother to explain how completely lacking Gary’s knowledge of ‘dwarfism’ is and how it isn’t Saddam’s fault or will that clarification on an irrelevant blog be deleted again?

  • missfitz

    From confused in South Down:

    There is a dwarfs assocation in Iraqi Kurdistan.

    Thats it?

    Nothing more is mentioned about the short people (I believe the word dwarf is not acceptable to those who are vertically challenged)
    What is this thread about, please?

  • Slugger O’Toole Admin

    I pulled them. There was little attempt in those first three posts to play a legit point. They consisted mostly of gratuitous man playing, with little attempt to address the accuracy or relevance of the post itself. Several abusive comments have also been subsequently removed.

    I have no problem with legitimate criticisms of the post above. All bloggers on Slugger have the freedom to write what they deem appropriate, and they should be prepared to take legit criticism in return.

    My working guidance to all our bloggers is that if they have the first word they should be prepared for readers to have the last. But I emphasise the need for commenters to play their points cleanly – indulging in gratuitous man playing can put the whole post in jeopardy.

    Whatever animus you may harbour is better expended in demolishing argument, not individuals!

  • Cahal

    Yes, any valid criticism you may have had was dwarfed by the subsequent insults.

    I thought it was an interesting piece. I think an important point was made – lets quit yapping about the rights or wrongs of being there, lets make the best of the current (golden) opportunity to shape the future of Iraq for the better.

  • m


    So you ignore editing of the blog in response to elements of deleted criticism? That is not legit in any field of the media or debate.

  • Mick Fealty


    My comments were a courtesy. If you cannot make your comments both civil and forensic, then there are many other dialogue sites on the net which don’t impose such obligation.

    The editing involved a shortening of the title, a note that it had been written for Fortnight magazine, and italicisation of the last paragraph.

    None of which justifies the hail of abuse you hurled at the writer.

  • fartrick

    See Commenting policy – edited Moderator

  • Rory

    But I never hurled any personal abuse whatsoever at the author. Even if he is an acne ridden, specky-four-eyed fatty who suffers from acute halitosis and had a poor education I would not see it as my place to mention that (or his sexual impotency) unless he had first raised the matter in his original piece. Even then I would restrict my comments to helpful advise as how to overcome these difficulties.

    The piece itself however is another matter.Kent tells us of an Iraqui association for dwarfs and tells us that there are incidences of cancer and leukemia among Kurds in northern Iraq and then invites us to blame Saddam Hussein (though why Saddam established an association of Iraqui Dwarfs he does not say). He also wants us to blame Saddam for the failure of treatment for those afflicted, as if he is under the impression that Saddam is still in control. And you ask us to make our comments on this blather “forensic”. Next thing I will be expecting is an excerpt from Russell Grant’s horoscope column and advice to keep our remarks on that “forensic”.

    Mr Kent’s opening paragraph’s were nothing but mere gratuitous waffle reeled off without resource reference or backup and as such invite criticism that is robust and hearty.The rest of his piece is the usual hearty little report back from a trade union delegation trip abroad and deserves the usual attention reserved for such reports (including from long standing union members) -“Yawn!”

  • Henry94

    I haven’t come across Gary’s blogs before but I welcome this one for two reasons. First it is interesting in itself as a first-hand account and second I would like to see international questions given the slugger treatment more often.

    I can’t understand why the blog attracted such hostility. Is it the suggestion that WMDs were used by Saddam?

    Is criticism of Saddam somehow un-PC for the anti-Bush brigade?

    Anyway more of the same please.

  • Dwarfism is quite common in Asia, in the Philippines for example, which has been a client state of the USA for over 100 years.
    It might also be worth noting that the Irish were heavily involved in running Saddam’s health service. However, it is a weak argument that needs to blame Saddam for it.
    I wonder, as an aside, what the policy of Gary;s unionists is to the slaughter of Armenians by Kurds or does thatr fit into their agenda? Also, any comments on Gibbons and the fate of the Armenians?
    It might also be worth noting that Gary’s visit to Northern Iraq was part of the normalization, criminalization and Kurdizization of the Crusaders’ illegal invasion of that country,
    Also, as trade unions were so ineffective in fighting sectarianism in the six counties, and as they are largely a spent force in Britain, how does he expect them to play a positive role in Iraq, a country which has been dismembered to help secure Israel’s military dominance of the region? Democracy, my foot.

  • Dk

    “Kurdizization of the Crusaders’ illegal invasion”

    Best quote for a long long time.

    “Crusaders”. Just had to write it again.

    Are we to next expect the mongol hordes to appear out of Iran?

    People say Northern Ireland is stuck in the seventeenth century, but it appears that the poster above is stuck in the twelth!!!!

  • DK: I will try to make this simple for you:

    1. The invasion of Iraq was illegal and most likey a war crime.
    2. Iraq, a sovereign country, has been broken up, yet again.
    3. The invaders, who are getting a very bloody nose, are regarded as modern day Crusaders.

    Is that simple enough for you? Or would you like me to repeat it
    Monday, May 15, 2006.

  • DK


    Who cares if the 1991/99 invasion was illegal or illegal? You’re the wally going on about crusaders – and making a fool of yourself. I’m not arguing about whether the war is legal/illegal or whatever. But a “crusade” it certainly isn’t. Iraq isn’t the holy land, Jerusalem and Bethlahem are in Israel & Palestine. The America/British/etc forces are composed of a variety of religions and none, they are not motivated by religious zeal. None of the invaders believe they will go to heaven as a result of the invasion, they expect to get paid their wages as professional soldiers. The Pope didn’t proclaim the invasions of 1991/9, in fact he condemned them. Got the message. NOT A CRUSADE!

    Is that simple enough for you? Or would you like *me* to repeat it…

    On a bit of a tangent, the crusades – the ones in the holy lands hundreds of years ago – were perhaps slightly more legal as they were helping to re-gain Byzantine lands taken by the invading Arab forces earlier.

  • DK. Thank you for your history lesson. I suggest you read up on it a bit more before uou continue. You mention the Byzantine lands but you seem unaware of the hatred the Eastern Church retains as a result of the Crusaders, who were mostly venal mercenaries.
    Who cares if the invasion was illegal? Maybe the resistance fighters killing the invaders/Crusaders do. Maybe the people killing those trying to “normalize” the “situation” do. Maybe the people referring to them as Crusaders do? Geddit?

  • DK

    Yes, one of the crusades was diverted onto Constantinople and sacked it. There were quite a few crusades, and not all to the Middle East. Some went to Lithuania. Crusaders weren’t mostly venal mercenaries – they were mostly religious “enthusiasts” – they went for free, unlike mercenaries, who get paid.

    I would suggest that those referring to the invaders as “crusaders” are using the term either through ignorance, or as some sort of religiously inspired battle cry. Probably both. They are as bad as the invaders, who appear to be considered “liberators” to the Kurds. But then the Kurds killed Armenians xx years ago, so their opinions don’t count.

    Seems to me that there is a range of things going on in Iraq, from people benifitting from the invasion, to those losing out. Equally the insurgents vary from locally inspired resistance to sectarian fanatics blowing up rival mosques. Sooner the allies are out the better, but they can hardly leave until there is some sort of viable replacement to keep local law & order.

    Saddam seems to have been a kind of Tito figure. Once the strongman was gone Iraq, like Yugoslavia, splintered into it’s ethno-religious bits. Probably this needs to be recognised, rather than the present attempt to maintain a single country.

  • Gary Kent

    The three main component parts of Iraq are still trying to stick together and their leaders may yet form a government of national unity. A million trade unionists are part of a movement that is seeking a federal solution. They also face the usual problems of other trade unionists. The very least is that, whatever people’s views on the invasion (and our group contained contrasting views), the old-fashioned imperative of solidarity should impel people to give solidarity. Below is one small way in which this can be done.

    Gary Kent

    Second-hand mobile phone solidarity

    The TUC has launched an appeal for unions and their members to pass on their used mobile phones to the Iraqi trade union movement as an act of second-hand solidarity.

    Unions representing workers in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan face incredible challenges in defending working people and rebuilding democracy. One of their requests for solidarity from British trade unionists is the provision of mobile phones – crucial for any union organiser these days, but especially in Iraq where travel can be dangerous and landlines aren’t sufficiently reliable or widespread.

    But mobile phones can be expensive to buy in Iraq (and UK phone systems don’t work there yet), so buying new ones could eat up scarce union resources. Instead, the Iraqi trade union movement has identified a way of easily converting old European mobile phones for use in Iraq. So now the TUC Iraq Solidarity Committee has opened an appeal for used mobile phones.

    TUC General Councillor Sue Rogers, Chair of the TUC Iraq Solidarity Committee, said: ‘Rather than throwing your old mobile phone out, put it to good use rebuilding trade unionism in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Their need is great, and this would be such a small effort, but a big contribution.’

    Old mobile phones (and their chargers, of course) should be sent to the TUC Aid for Iraq appeal at Congress House, Great Russell Street,
    London WC1B 3LS.

  • seananton

    It’s worth remembering that the first group to drop poison gas on the Kurds was the RAF in the early 1920s under the command of Harris, later known in the 2nd world war as Bomber Harris.
    Of course, sometimes it’s inconvenient to remember things like that.

  • DK


    Any why is that worth remembering?

    Forgetting, of course, that everyone used poison gas in those days – nice to be able to look back from the safety of 21st century perspectives and criticise the past.

    Harris went on to advocate mass bombing of German civilians, so at least he was consistent. He might have helped to shorten the war and save thousands of allied lives. Or is it inconvenient to remember that. Please tell seananton, or shall we just continue to make facile comments that have nothing to do with the post (I believe it is called trolling).

  • micktvd

    Dear Gary, I am one of those ‘leftists’ who opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and am not prepared to accept that the motives of the invaders and their subsequent and current actions have no place in a discussion about ‘what we should be doing to help Iraqi unionists.’ I applaud your work and support it, but I think you leave out some crucial elements in your discussion. You rightly criticise the Iraqi government for retaining Saddam era anti-union policies, but you should also be discussing ‘coalition’ plans for the Iraqi economy and the agenda of the neocons and neoliberals. It is very much a live issue that the ‘coalition’ has been forced every step of the way to allow democracy in Iraq, that the first acts of the CPA was to try to create a ‘capitalists paradise,’and that the struggle of progressive Iraqis is not just against facists and feudalists, but against imperialists and exploiters. Overthrowing Saddam was a byproduct of an imperialist quest, one that brought immense benefit and relief to most Iraqis; but your article ignores the former aspect of the equation, and in so doing, distorts the nature of the struggle.