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Iraqi elections: mass participation, but nobody for workers to vote for

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Today Iraqis go to the polls to elect a 275 member parliamet, which will in turn choose government under the new constitution. Unlike the semi-boycotted January elections, mass participation in all parts of the population is widely expected. But who should the workers vote for?

Which party is resolutely opposed to the privatisation of the oil industry for example? US inspired contracts for Production Sharing Agreements, which will drain between $74 and $194 billion out of the country, into the coffers of the likes of Shell, Amoco and BP – are being drawn up now. Who in the new parliament will throw them out?

Which party will issue a clarion call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US, UK and all other coalition troops? Who will fight to protect women’s rights, now that women are afraid to go out alone for fear of a beating? Which party will table draft bills in parliament to make trade unions legal, a matter the new constitution left aside?

To ask these questions is to answer them; there is no one among the coalitions of Shia and Sunni confessional parties that will do these things. And the Iraqi Communist Party? It is standing on the Iraqi National List led by Iyad Allawi, the first puppet prime minister after the so-called handover of sovereignty in June 2004. Enough said.

Meanwhile, the occupation continues to ensure that many hundreds of thousands will not be able to cast their votes because of the violent occupation and sustained assault on Anbar and the other western provinces. Most recently, revelations about US use of chemical weapons and, still denied but gathering in evidence, illegal kidnapping and torture.

Chemical weapons

White phosphorous reacts violently in contact with air, forming thick clouds of phosphorous pentoxide. When this falls and makes contact with skin it burns to the bone, causes extreme vomiting and a painful death from the disintegration of the lungs.

It is banned under the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons from being used in civilian areas. The US never signed this protocol and its army used white phosphorous on the civilians of Fallujah in November 2004. Infantryman Jeff Englehart told Italian television he saw “the burned bodies of women and children".

The question this fact raises is, “If we are only now learning about the war crimes committed the last time the US occupation forces besieged cities in western Iraq, what is happening now, as they repeat the sweep?"

Mk77 napalm has also been recorded, along with depleted uranium. In short, the fear of chemical weapons, which was whipped up in US and Britain to garner support for the invasion, is now a reality for many Iraqis.

Operation Steel Curtain is presently battering the main Sunni population centres. Reports of its ferocity, like this one from journalist Sabah Ali, have filtered through.

"Water, electricity, phones, roads were all cut. The city was besieged before the bombing began on October 5, 2005 and went on for 18 days. Many houses were demolished; many families left to the refugee camps, many people were arrested.” (

The Sunni Iraqi Council for National Dialogue has pointed out that the offensive has displaced more than 200,000 refugees into the desert without food or water, many of whom are dying, all of whom will not be able to vote in the forthcoming election.

Prisons, abduction and torture

And last month too, more prisoner abuse was uncovered. The Ministry of the Interior had entrusted members of the notorious Badr Brigades to starve, beat and torture 173 prisoners.

"I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had their skin peeled off,” Hussein Kamal told CNN.

But if the occupation troops were surprised at their find, their generals and commander-in-chief George Bush couldn’t have been. Neither were Iraqis. Thousands, like writer Muhsin al-Khafaji, have been held for over a year without charge. Even in the supposedly insurgency free Kurdish provinces, prisons are overflowing, often with political opponents of the two main Kurdish parties.

The US and Britain that remain the main jailers: they have the power - and regularly use it - to impose a lockdown on any part of the country they choose to. Human Rights Watch has recently given fresh details of torture being carried out at Mercury military base, near Fallujah.

Meanwhile, the international scandal of the CIA’s policy of “extraordinary rendition” grows daily. One after the other, the governments of Spain, Germany and Britain feign surprise and ignorance as the catalogue of abductions, false imprisonment and torture unfolds. Torture camps in “new Europe” countries like Poland and Romania have been hurriedly closed down before Swiss senator Dick Marty can verify their existence in front of the Copuncil of Europe.

The global network of torture camps, stretching from Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, from Bagram airport in Afghanistan to Egypt and North Africa, is kept strictly out of reach even of United Nations inspectors. Most Iraqis know friends or relatives who have been “processed” at some point in this system.

And it is this that is fuelling the resistance - armed, political, industrial - to the US and British occupation.

Troops out now

US and British troops have no progressive role to play in Iraq whatsoever. As the daily toll of Iraqi dead mounts, fewer people believe that the occupation is “preventing a bloodbath". According to a British MoD poll of Iraqis in the Shia south, where the resistance is supposed to be weaker, 82 per cent of the people want the foreign troops out now. A massive BBC poll similarly found the occupation the main concern for Iraqis, and their removal top of their wish list.

But the imperialist troops will not leave Iraq of their own accord. They must be forced out by a massive movement in Iraq and around the world.

Working class party

That’s why the working class organisations need to band together to form a new party and stand candidates. While it is vital to represent workers and their demands in these elections, such a party should not be primarily a vehicle for standing in elections. It needs to be a militant combat party that represents the masses of Iraqi workers in each and every struggle – against the presence of foreign troops, against repression and for civil liberties, against religious sectarianism. Its members can and must be drawn from all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, Shia, Sunni, Kurd, but the party itself must be secular in its outlook.

Fortunately, such a party is not a pipe dream. The Iraqi Federation of Oil Workers (IFOW), with its 23,000 workers in the main production fields around Basra, and more around Baghdad and Kirkuk, represents a powerful starting point for such a party. Hassan Juma’a, the leader of the IFOW, touring Britain this month, has accepted publicly that “the Iraqi working class needs political representation”. But to date they have drawn back from initiating steps to form an independent, secular working class party, preferring to press on other parties the case for workers’ rights.

The problem with this approach is twofold.

Firstly, the working class cannot fight for its needs simply by placing demands on the parties of the bourgeoisie or the middle class. Of course workers can and should place demands on these parties and even enter into temporary blocs with them over certain reforms and struggles, especially against imperialism.

However, all existing parties in Iraq are committed to private property, and in the last analysis will always put the profits of the capitalist system above the needs of the working class. Even those that say they are against imperialism and repression will, in the face of a rising and confident working class, change sides and support the forces of repression and imperialism. That is why workers need their own independent party.

Secondly, the road to working class freedom is not a gradual one, paved with piecemeal reforms, especially in a country like Iraq, where the imperialists demand their cut. Only a revolution, which starts from the struggle to oust the US and British troops and the immediate democratic and economic demands of the masses, but links this to socialist demands for a democratically planned economy and working class ownership and control over production, can secure the workers’ needs.

This is not a maximum or utopian programme. It is the only realistic programme for the Iraqi working class. To achieve it the workers may need to form passing alliances with other classes. They will certainly need to build permanent links to the working classes throughout the Middle East. For the struggle to liberate Iraq from imperialism’s clutches, both political and economic, will mean throwing the imperialists and their multi nationals out of the whole middle east – bag and baggage. In Iraq the burning task of the day is to establish an independent workers party, one with roots in the masses and in the trade unions.

Whoever wins the election this month, the struggle for such a party must begin now. And socialists around the world should support each and every step in that direction.