When he was 21 years old, Hadi Salih was seized from his home in Baghdad by Saddam Hussein's secret police and summarily sentenced to death. His crime? Forming a trade union and campaigning for decent wages and basic health and safety conditions.
Amazingly, Salih survived. After five years in an Iraqi dungeon, his death sentence was commuted to permanant exile. He never gave up campaigning against Baathism and - although he opposed the recent war because of the civilian casualties it would cause - he headed home the moment Saddam was toppled.
Salih quickly became the leading figure in the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), one of 12 trade union organisations formed in Iraq over the past two years. He knew that no society has needed trade unions more than Iraq does right now. Trade unions are a secular space where it doesn't matter if you are Sunni, Shia or Christian; they provide an opportunity to bridge sectarian divides and unite in a common democratic cause. Even more importantly, trade unions are the only way for Iraqis to resist the IMF programme of "shock therapy" and corporate rule being imposed undemocratically (with the support of the British and US governments) on their country.
Speaking a few months ago, Salih expressed his hope that trade unions could play the same role in regenerating Iraq that they played in post-war Japan. "The labour movement in Japan has been fighting for their country and for social justice for 50 years. If they can do it, we can too. That is why, despite everything, I am enthusiastic." He had already recruited over 300,000 members.
On Tuesday night, a masked gang broke into Salih's home in Baghdad. They bound him hand and foot and they blindfolded him. They beat and they burned his flesh. Once they had finished torturing him, they strangled him with an electric cord. As a final touch, they riddled his body with bullets.
Salih's close friend Abdullah Muhsin, the international representative of the IFTU, told me yesterday, "He was an ordinary but a very decent man. He worked in the print industry in Iraq and in exile, and the passion of his life was Iraqi workers and their desire to live as free people. And now I hear people describe his murderers as 'the resistance'. Resistance to what? To trade unions? To a decent man who loved his family and loved Iraq and wanted his country to be free? They cannot silence Salih. They cannot silence the Iraqi trade unions. Not again."
The IFTU has reported a pattern of attacks on trade union offices and trade union members. The murder of Salih bears all the hallmarks of Saddam's Mukhabarat - the Baathist KGB. Whatever you thought about the justice of the recent war in Iraq - and there were plenty of good reasons to oppose it - the only decent path now is to stand with a majority of Iraqis against the murderers of Salih and dozens of other Iraqi trade unionists.
Yet - I can't believe I'm saying this - a significant portion of the left is not standing with them. John Pilger - who says he has "seldom felt as safe in any country" as when he visited Saddam's Iraq - now openly supports the resistance on the grounds that "we can't afford to be choosy". The Stop the War Coalition passed a resolution recently saying the resistance should use "any means necessary" - which prompted Mick Rix, a decent trade unionist, to resign from the STWC on the grounds that this clearly constituted support for the murder of civilians. George Galloway has attacked the IFTU as "quislings" and described the tearful descriptions of one of their members of life under Saddam as "a party trick".
A few months ago, Subdhi al-Mashadani, a representative of the IFTU, came to speak at the European Social Forum in London. This is a really important gathering of left-wing campaign groups who fight on issues nobody else in the political spectrum stands up for: defending refugees, opposing the sale of weapons to tyrants, ending the international drug patenting rules that are killing hundreds of thousands of Africans, and much more. So you would expect the international left to welcome him and hear him politely.
But he was an Iraqi who didn't restrict his comments to the need for occupation troops to leave once a democratic election has been held. He also insisted on talking about the nature of the Sunni "resistance" - one of the most reactionary political forces anywhere on earth, consisting of homicidal misogynists, homophobes and supporters of Sharia law. The audience at the Social Forum booed and hissed him so loudly that he had to leave the stage.
I know that right now the international left is a relatively small force, and it might seem odd to dedicate valuable space to the direction of this movement when much more powerful forces are ravaging Iraq. But I believe that, in the long term, a campaigning left is the only force that offers real hope on some of the biggest issues confronting the world: man-made climate change, nuclear weapons, extending worker's rights and meaningful democracy, and reforming the disastrous IMF and World Bank, to name just a few. If this force is hijacked by the likes of Galloway and those who vilify trade unionists emerging from the rubble of a tyranny, then there really is no hope at all.
Some of the most honourable and consistent left-wing opponents of the war have already spoken out about this. Peter Tatchell, for example, explains: "Sections of progressive opinion are wavering in their defence of universal human rights. Many leftists now support a 'resistance' that would bring to power Baathists and Islamic fundamentalists. Is that what the left should stand for? Neo-fascism, so long as it is anti-western?"
The Labour MP Harry Barnes knew Salih. He told me yesterday: "This brutal murder is a wake-up call for any on the left who still have illusions about the 'resistance'. It was one thing to oppose the war, as I did on every occasion in the Commons - but we have moved beyond that debate. We may not like how we have got here but those on the left who do not give urgent and increased solidarity to the Iraqi trade unions will be damned by history."
It is time for this decent left to reassert itself. The situation in Iraq is extremely volatile, and even small political shifts can have a large impact right now. For example, the (mostly peaceful) Shia rebellion managed to bring the elections forward. A strong trade union movement could help to make the result of that election meaningful.
And there is something practical that everybody who cares about Iraqis can do about it. The TUC has set up an online donation service for the Iraqi Trade Unions at www.tuc.org.uk/ international. If just 5 per cent of the people who marched against the war supported the Iraqi labour movement now with their wallets, we could strengthen the hands of Iraqi democrats at a turning point in their country's history.
This isn't about supporting the occupying forces.It's about supporting ordinary Iraqis trying to get beyond Saddam and beyond the occupation. Do it for the Iraqi people. Do it for Hadi Salih.Reuse content