Francis Wheen’s ,Nick Cohen’s and Tony Blair’s charge that the anti-war movement are on the wrong side in the war on terror. Are we allying with the Islamic right against Iraqi democrats?

The iconic image of the Iraqi elections - a woman with purple dye on her fingers after voting (this was meant to stop anyone voting more than once) - but how democratic is Iraq? Have our governments or the anti-war movement failed to support democracy and democrats in Iraq?

The charge of failing to support Iraqi democrats and trade unionists

Tony Blair and a large minority of people in Britain and the US – including even some people who opposed the 2003 invasion - argue that we now have to keep British and American troops in Iraq in order to defend democracy, human rights and trade unionists. Several Labour MPs who voted against the invasion now back the continued presence of coalition troops in Iraq.

Harry Barnes and Nick Cohen both cite the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions as the true voice of democrats and socialists in Iraq. As we’ll see there’s not much point in arguing about this because the IFTU like most Iraqis sees British and American troops as an occupying force and wants them to leave Iraq.

They and other trade unions in Iraq may disagree on whether the 2005 elections were legitimate and on which of them is the legitimate voice of Iraqi workers (surely all of them should be recognised since independent trade unions – those not subject to state approval or control – are a requirement for democracy?). However they all agree that British and American forces should leave Iraq.

Nick Cohen and other Euston Manifesto signatories vary on whether they want coalition troops to stay in Iraq or not and Labour Friends of Iraq provide no clear position on the issue either but all of them direct most of their criticisms not at the Bush administration or the Blair government but at opponents of the war who want the troops brought home now. They claim many of the anti-war movement are “anti-American” and allied to right wing Islamic extremists against democrats and trade unionists in Iraq and elsewhere.

Former Labour MP Harry Barnes is more balanced but repeats some of the same criticisms. (For some of the debate on trade unions in Iraq see his reply to my post on John McDonnell's website and my reply to his reply here)

I believe that most of the people who say we should keep troops in Iraq genuinely believe in their positions and that the anti-war movement’s critics have some valid points. For instance we should completely condemn attacks on civilians by anyone – whether US forces, Al Qaida , Islamic or nationalist insurgents , Israeli forces, Hezbollah or anyone else are responsible for such attacks. I also believe many coalition troops in Iraq genuinely want to protect Iraqi civilians and would like to ensure a transition to democracy (the governments who keep them there are another story).

Those who believe we should keep British and American troops in Iraq argue that Iraqi democrats, trade unionists and socialists want the troops to stay – while only religious extremists and former Ba'athists want them to leave.

On top of that Nick Cohen and Harry Barnes MP, among others, argue that the anti-war movement has allied to religious extremists in Iraq and Britain against our natural allies Iraqi trade unionists, socialists and democrats.

Francis Wheen argues along different lines that , basically, the Bush administration are not as bad as Al Qa’ida so we should back the Bush administration. (The ‘Marxist’ argument employed by Wheen is covered in more detail here.)

The case for the defence - Part I - Iraqis' views

Now for the other side of the argument. There are many reasons to think that Labour leadership candidate John McDonnell MP and the Stop the War Coalition are right to call for our troops to be brought home from Iraq now , for an end to NATO offensives in Afghanistan and for no blanket sanctions, military strikes or war against Iran.

Nick Cohen, Tony Blair and Labour Friends of Iraq argue that our natural allies in Iraq are the democratically elected government and the IFTU/GFIW federation of trade unionists – and that coalition troops need to stay in Iraq to protect democrats and socialists.

Yet the IFTU opposed the invasion and continues to describe the presence of foreign troops as ‘occupation’.

A representative of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions speaking in 2005 said :

“Most of you will, like me and my comrades in the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), have opposed the war. I don't regret doing so and I would do so again.

“I believed that the Iraqi people had other ways to overthrow Saddam Hussein's despicable fascist-type dictatorship” (1)

Blair, Bush and Cohen may claim that war was the only way Saddam's dictatorship could be overthrown. Yet as many Iraqis said - and still say - this was not so. (This is not to say that all Iraqis opposed the invasion - opinion was and is divided among Iraqis as it is among British and Americans - (2) ) The peaceful collapse of Communist dictatorships and of South African Apartheid show that this is not true. Polls show Iraqis believe in democracy - they also show they want real democracy - not a government imposed on them by the Bush administration.

It is worth noting that every trade union in Iraq opposes the presence of coalition troops. The Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (the same one cited by Cohen and Barnes) – also known as the GFIW said in a statement in November 2006 that “As all of us know, the occupation has destroyed everything in Iraqi society, unleashed the sectarian and nationalist gangs to slaughter and jeopardize peoples’ safety.”(3).

In 2004 Abdullah Muhsin , head of the IFTU, told the TUC “Friends, we must ask for your support to defend our new trade union movement against repression and intolerance, whether it comes from elements loyal to the former regime or from the military powers illegally occupying our country”. (4)

So much for Nick Cohen’s claim that the misguided liberal left opposed a war which most Iraqi socialists, trade unionists and democrats supported – and so much for his claim that in calling for the troops to be brought home we are abandoning Iraqis now.

The majority of Iraqis of most political views (religious or secular, socialist or not, democrats or not) want foreign troops out of Iraq. That is the overall result from years of polling - the other trend being a steady increase in the numbers opposing the occupation. (5) (6) A poll for the times in March 2007 - much trumpeted as supposedly showing Iraqis backed the coalition - found that 53% of Iraqis believed security would improve if British and American forces left Iraq. The only Iraqis to show consistent majorities in favour of British and American troops staying in Iraq are Iraqi Kurds who fear being threatened from all sides by Turkey, Iran and the Sunnis and Shia to their South (7).

There are some seemingly self-contradictory results suggesting inconsistent views - e.g in recent polls large majorities saying that British and American troops are seen as occupiers and that security would improve if they left - but a majority saying they should not leave immediately. There is bound to be debate and some uncertainty about the best course of action among Iraqis as among any other people - and answers will tend to depend on the wording of questions - but the overall trend from dozens of polls over the years (with each poll only a snap-shot of opinion at a moment in time) is a steadily increasing majority wanting foreign troops to leave.

Most US troops would like to go home too. Seventy-two per cent of US troops in Iraq agreed that they should leave Iraq and soon in a Zogby poll taken in 2006 (8).

Hashimiya Hussein and Abdullah Muhsin , leaders of the IFTU or GFIW Iraqi trade union federation, meet TUC officials. They, like most Iraqis, opposed the invasion and want foreign troops to leave Iraq while also condemning terrorist attacks and assassinations

What’s more the elected government in Iraq has refused to change the trade union laws introduced by the Coalition Provisional Authority under US ‘governor’ of Iraq Paul Bremer – which in turn are based closely on Saddam’s anti-union laws which make trade unions other than those approved by the government illegal and ban most union activities. US and Iraqi government troops also carry out frequent raids on IFTU offices. (9) , (10), (11) , (12)


The case for the defence - Part II - Bush and Blair’s fake Iraqi democrats

How about Tony Blair’s claim that we are bringing democracy to Iraq? The candidate backed by the Bush administration and Blair government in the Iraqi elections of 2005 was Iyad Allawi. Allawi was an ally of Saddam who murdered Iraqi exilesa> across Europe between 1971 and 1975 as a member of the Ba’ath party’s Mukhabarat secret police (13) . In the late 70s he fell out with Saddam and survived assassination attempts himself. By the 1990s he had defected to the CIA , organising car and cinema bombings in Baghdad (14) . As interim Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi shot suspected insurgents in the head without anything as prosaic as a trial to find out whether they were guilty or not (15) . So much for backing democracy, human rights or the rule of law. Tony Blair invited Allawi to address the Labour party conference and sent his former adviser Margaret McDonagh ( made a peer by Blair) to help run Allawi’s campaign in the January 2005 elections (16) . Despite this and the Bush administration’s attempts at bribing voters and rigging the election in his favour Allawi’s list still came a distant third with under 15% of the vote in both the January and December elections (17) , (18)

(It may be argued by some that it's inconsistent to claim that Bush and Blair didn't want real democracy for Iraq when they accepted the defeat of Allawi - their favoured candidate. In fact they had no choice. To have refused to accept that would have destroyed any pretence of favouring democracy, losing them any chance of getting UN approval for the continued presence of their forces in Iraq - and would also have led Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (the equivalent of a Pope to Iraqi Shia but much more influential) to declare the elections illegitimate - the coalition couldn't possibly retain any control in Iraq if it ignored Al Sistani - who put together the Shia list of candidates which won the elections)

Under Allawi and his successors the Iraqi government has used the same torture methods and death squads employed by Saddam Hussein’s regime – often carried out by the same people who killed and tortured for Saddam after they’ve been trained by coalition forces (19) , (20) (21) , (22).

(This is also confirmed by more than one report by Human Rights Watch ). (23) , (24) , (25).

The fact that some of the Iranian backed candidates are as bad isn’t much of an argument – and victims include members of the Iranian backed Badr brigade - hardly likely to be targeted by Iranian backed militias (26) .

One of the charges against IFTU head Abdullah Muhsin by his critics is that he called for the British TUC to welcome Iyad Allawi. If this is true his action should certainly be condemned – because Allawi is no democrat.

Iyad Allawi ,one of Bush and Blair’s fake ‘democrats’ in Iraq. He murdered Iraqi dissidents for the Ba’ath party in the early 70s , organised car and cinema bombings for the CIA in the 90s and as interim Prime Minister shot suspects without any trial.


As Naomi Klein pointed out the party with the highest vote in the elections the United Iraqi Alliance had a manifesto calling for “a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.” – something which the British and American governments still refuse to give Iraqi voters , falling back instead on vague and meaningless formulations about how the troops “may” be withdrawn by such and such a date “if the security situation allows it”. (27)

The case for the defence - Part III - Bush and Blair’s methods defeat their stated aims

What’s worst is that those backing keeping troops in Iraq or war on Iran are asking us to support methods which, whether carried out by democratically elected governments or not, are strengthening rather than weakening Al Qa’ida. The most basic is that they are fighting wars which can never defeat terrorist organisations or the ideologies and movements which create and sustain dictatorships in power but can only gain them new recruits, supporters and sympathisers. (See section ? for the full reasons)To give just one example the repeated coalition assaults on Fallujah and other cities which had the stated aim of clearing insurgents out of these cities have led to a massive rise of support for the insurgency. The Pentagon's own polls show that immediately after the invasion only 14% of sunni Iraqis supported the insurgents - by 2005 after 2 years of "pacification" 75% did . (28) Similarly the Moqtada Al Sadr's support was negligible in the aftermath of the invasion - but has since rocketed as he is seen as standing up to British and American occupation.

To ask us to support methods which strengthen militias, terrorist organisations, extreme religious groups and extreme nationalists is irrational and completely perverse. Nick Cohen and Tony Blair are merely making an intellectual sounding version of Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ argument as if the only choice is back Bush and Blair and their methods or back Al Qa’ida.

Bush and Blair’s strategy keeps strengthening Al Qa’ida and similar groups – providing them with the ‘foreign threat’ to try to label their domestic political opponents ‘weak’ or ‘traitors’. Al Qa’ida uses exactly the same strategy to try to force Muslims to support it. The theocrats in the Iranian government point to the repeated threats by Bush to cow their population – just as the Bush administration point to the supposed Iranian ‘nuclear threat’ to try to cow theirs. None of them have their own peoples’ safety as their main motive – keeping power domestically is their primary aim.


Part IV - We can choose more effective methods

Of course we often can’t choose perfection and must settle for realistically available choices – but the choices presented by Cohen are not the only realistic choices. We have the choice of relying on far more effective methods to defeat both terrorist organisations and dictatorships. To defeat terrorist organisations employ effective methods – good community relations, good policing and intelligence work. .

To defeat hostile dictatorships and authoritarian regimes remove the foreign threats of sanctions and war which they hold up as a bogeyman to their own population and use to label dissidents ‘traitors’. The main factor keeping the theocratic and extremist elements in Iran’s government in place is the threat of sanctions or military attack by the US and Britain. Iranians have not forgotten that in 1953 their first elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq was overthrown in an Anglo-American backed military coup and replaced by the Shah – a greedy and brutal military dictator. Remove the threat of sanctions or war from the UK and US against Iran and the theocratic element in the current regime will not survive long. (29) , (30) , (31)

Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq – democratically elected in 1953 he was overthrown and replaced by the military dictator the Shah by the CIA, MI6 and Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP) in 1953. The British and American governments backed the Shah till he was overthrown in 1979. His dictatorship is the reason Iranians still distrust the west.

Iranian students rebelled in 1999 and were brutally suppressed by theocratic elements in the Iranian government – but it took many revolts before the Shah’s dictatorship was overthrown and reform may be more likely to create more genuine democracy than revolutions.

The hatred of the west caused by the indiscriminate bombing of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War and the subsequent deaths from sanctions actually propped up Saddam’s regime by turning most of his peoples’ hatred on the west.

In other cases we only need to stop arming and allying with dictators such as the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak whose corruption and use of torture and jailing or execution of political opponents without trial weakens peaceful opposition groups and strengthens violent ones – not to mention Al Qa’ida.


The final charge - Are those opposing the Iraq war wrongly allying with the religious right in Britain?

The charge that the anti-war movement has allied with the Islamic religious right in Britain makes more sense – but conflicts with Cohen’s own argument that we often have to ally with people whose motives differ from our own to achieve a common goal. If British Muslims – whose own politics vary just as those of Catholics, Protestants, agnostics and atheists vary – want our troops brought home for religious reasons then there is no reason not to ally with them if we want the same thing even if our motives differ. I’m not sure that our motives do differ that much. Moderate and progressive strains of Islam are entirely compatible with democracy and even social justice. As for the minority who , for instance , call for girls or women who want an education or homosexuals to be killed or who want to wipe out all Israelis we will oppose them as strenuously as we call for the troops to be brought home.

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007

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(1) =General Federation of Iraqi Workers 27 Apr 2005, ‘IFTU addresses Annual General Meeting of the South West Region TUC’, http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/000267.html

(2) = D3 systems Mar 2007, ‘D3 Systems Poll for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today’, Question 10, page 5 , http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6451841.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/19_03_07_iraqpollnew.pdf

(3) =General Federation of Iraqi Workers 12 Jan 2007, ‘Desperate for Jobs, Iraqi Workers Too Often Become Victims of Terror ’, http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/000683.html

(4) = Abdullah Muhsin's speech to the TUC ; GFIW press release 30 Jan 2004, ‘Eyewitness Iraq! - IFTU addresses trade unionists in Birmingham, UK ’, http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/cat_press_releases.html

(5) = Iraq Analysis has a constantly updated list of links to polls of Iraqis - http://www.iraqanalysis.org/info/55

(6) = D3 systems Mar 2007, ‘D3 Systems Poll for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today’, 69% of Iraqis polled said US forces made the security situation worse ; 77% said the US was playing a negative role in Iraq ; 75% said the UK was also ; 40% said President Bush or US forces were to blame for most of the violence in Iraq , 18% said Al Qa'ida or foreign jihadists were ; 71% said the troop surge in Baghdad would make the security situation worse or have no effect; 76% said Coalition forces were not doing a good job. Seemingly contradicting themselves around 50% said coalition forces should only leave once security was provided - but other polls and the answers to other questions show a majority for them to leave Iraq soon overall ; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6451841.stm and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/19_03_07_iraqpollnew.pdf

(7) = Opinion Research Business poll of Iraqis for the Times Newspaper March 2007, summary - http://www.opinion.co.uk/Newsroom_details.aspx?NewsId=67 , poll in http://www.opinion.co.uk/Documents/FINALTables.pdf (pdf form)

Also see footnote (5) above and the ABC news poll of Iraqis published on 19 March 2007 - ABC News report 19 Mar 2007 'Voices From Iraq 2007: Ebbing Hope in a Landscape of Loss' , http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=2954716&page=1 ;and full poll 'ABC NEWS/USA TODAY/BBC/ARD POLL – IRAQ: WHERE THINGS STAND ; Ebbing Hope in a Landscape of Loss Marks a National Survey of Iraq' , http://abcnews.go.com/images/US/1033aIraqpoll.pdf

(8) = Zogby poll Feb 2006 ‘"U.S. Troops in Iraq’,http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1075

(9) = CounterPunch 25 Aug 2003 ‘"War Makes Privatization Easy : In Iraq, Labor Protest is a Crime" By DAVID BACON’,http://www.counterpunch.org/bacon08252003.html

(10) = Guardian 20 Jan 2005 ‘Obituary - Hadi Saleh’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1394127,00.html

(11) = ICEM (International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions) News release 5 Mar 2007 ‘Military Raids, Arrest at Iraqi Union Office Demands Action ’,http://www.icem.org/en/77-All-ICEM-News-Releases/2159-Military-Raids-Arrest-at-Iraqi-Union-Office-Demands-Action

(12) = GFIW (General Federation of Iraqi Workers) 05 March 2007 ‘ICTUR Sends a Letter of Protest to the President of the USA ’,http://www.iraqitradeunions.org/archives/000818.html

(13) = New Yorker magazine 28 Jan 2005 ‘Annals of National Security : Plan B’ by Seymour Hersh,http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/06/28/040628fa_fact?currentPage=5

(14) = New York Times 9 Jun 2004 ‘THE REACH OF WAR: NEW PREMIER; Ex-C.I.A. Aides Say Iraq Leader Helped Agency in 90's Attacks’ ,http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=FB0912F83D540C7A8CDDAF0894DC404482

(15) = Sydney Morning Herald 17 Jun 2004‘Allawi shot prisoners in cold blood: witnesses’ ,http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/07/16/1089694568757.html

(16) = New Yorker Magazine 25 July 2005‘Annals of National Security ; Get Out the Vote ; Did Washington try to manipulate Iraq’s election? ’ by Seymour Hersh ,http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/07/25/050725fa_fact?currentPage=4

(17) = CNN 14 Feb 2005‘Shiite alliance wins plurality in Iraq’ ,http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/02/13/iraq.main/index.html

(18) = The Independent 21 Dec 2005 ‘Iraq's election result: a divided nation’ ,http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article334476.ece

(19) = Washington Post 24 Aug 2003 ‘U.S. Recruiting Hussein's Spies Occupation Forces Hope Covert Campaign Will Help Identify Resistance ’ ,summary / preview in WP archive , ,full article reproduced by Common Dreams

(20) = Guardian 22 Oct 2003 ‘Plan to arrest maverick Iraqi cleric for murder’ ,http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1068114,00.html This article reports that "Tahir Jalil Habboush - a senior mukhabarat officer under the former regime who now works with the coalition authorities" is the man who signed a warrant for Al Sadr's arrest."

(21) = The Times 07 July 2005 ‘West turns blind eye as police put Saddam's torturers back to work’ ,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article541123.ece

(22) = The Telegraph 03 Jan 2004 ‘CIA plans new secret police to fight Iraq terrorism ’ ,http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/01/04/wirq04.xml

(23) = HRW 25 Jan 2005 ‘Iraq: Torture Continues at Hands of New Government’ , Iraq: Torture Continues at Hands of New Government

(24) = HRW 29 Oct 2006 ‘Iraq: End Interior Ministry Death Squads’ ,http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/10/29/iraq14473.htm

(25) = HRW 8 Jan 2007 ‘Iraq: US Plan Must Rein in Death Squads : Iraqi Government Should Prosecute Security Forces for Abuses ’ ,http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/01/08/iraq14986.htm

(26) = The Times 07 July 2005 ‘West turns blind eye as police put Saddam's torturers back to work’ ,http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7374-1683578,00.html

(27) = Naomi Klein 10 Feb 2005 ‘Getting the Purple Finger’ ,http://www.nologo.org/newsite/detaild.php?ID=455

(28) = BBC News 22 Sep 2006 ‘Iraq engulfed by tide of violence’ ,http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/5371394.stm

(29) = Kenneth M. Pollack (2005) ‘The Persian Puzzle’ Random House , New York , 2005

(30) = Mark Curtis (1995) ‘The Ambiguities of Power’ Zed Books, London & New Jersey, 1995 ; Ch.4 , p 87-96

(31) = Dilip Hiro (2005) ‘The Iranian Labyrinth’ , Nation Books, NY , 2005

copyright©Duncan McFarlane 2007

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