Skip to content or view screen version

Fuelling Resistance - report from Basra on GUOE conference

Ewa Jasiewicz | 22.06.2005 21:47

Iraqi oil workers hold first historic anti-oil privatisation conference in Basra...

uelling Resistance - Article published in Big Issue Scotland June 2005
by Ewa Jasiewicz

‘What Bleeds Leads’ has been the mass media’s narrow angle when it comes
to stories on Iraq. Soaring death-tolls, explosions, wailing mourners,
harried police, - these are the bloody images of a typical Iraq news

The story that didn’t make the news last month though was that
Iraq’s most powerful union – the 23,000 strong General Union of Oil
Employees – held a historic conference on Privatisation.

150 trade union activists, mostly GUOE members and union council leaders
from Nassiriyah and Amara and Basra, plus Iraqi Federation of Trade
Unions reps, local party political party activists and an international
delegates from Britain and the USA gathered under the banner ‘To revive
the public sector and to build an Iraq free of privatisation’,

In Iraq no public debate has occurred on the issue of the prising open
of Iraq’s economy to the free market. Few people were aware of the
Orders (de facto laws) which US Pro Consul Paul Bremer III passed in his
term. The notorious Order 39, passed September 2003, which allows for
100% foreign investment (ownership of Iraqi companies and assets) and
100% profit repatriation; orders on trade liberalisation, tax strategy,
salaries and employment all legalised what is regarded by international
law experts as an illegal process which violated The Hague and Geneva
Conventions. An occupying power does not have the right to remould a
country’s entire economy in the interests of international capital and
the free market. Bremer’s Orders, all 100 of them, are still on Iraq’s
legal books and form the structural basis for the process of aggressive
state sector privatisation tipped to engulf Iraq in the next 6-12
months. The financial crowbar set to actually force through
privatisation, is Iraq’s estimated $180bn debt. November 2004 saw the
Paris Club – the group of creditor countries to which Iraq owes its
debts – agree to ‘forgive’ 80% of Iraq’s debt on condition that it
accepts an IMF structural adjustment program which will transform the
present economy into a free market economy over the next five years. The
food ration system upon which 60% of the population depends on for
survival is to be scrapped and replaced with a cash payment and petrol
prices are set to soar as fuel subsidies are also axed.

The GUOE’s conference presented a direct challenge to this agenda as
well as the culmination of two years of organising, protesting,
blockading, striking and negotiating on the part of a union which is
still regarded as illegal by the occupation authority and Iraqi

Participating instructors and professors from Basra University focused
on different aspects of privatisation, tackling Iraq's current
industrial capacity; the need for new technology, construction, and
capital; shareholder systems; efficiency building; social welfare;
Iraq’s debt; competition from cheap imports; monopolies, and state and
private sector corruption risks. GUOE activists also repeatedly voiced
their opposition to foreign ownership of Iraqi oil or assets and spoke
of their own efforts in reconstructing their war-battered industry.

The conclusions of the conference were written up into a communiqué
addressed to the Iraqi Parliament, Government, Ministry of Oil, and the
Ministry of Industry. It affirmed privatisation as incredibly harmful to
the interests of the Iraqi people, called for the public sector to be
preserved as a manifestation of decades of hard work by the people of
Iraq and demanded Iraq’s odious debts to be dropped without conditions.

Established just a month after the end of the war, first in the Southern
Oil Company, the union has since led reconstruction efforts which have
seen refineries, drilling rigs, pipelines and port equipment
rehabilitated, as well as strike action against low wages which halted
exports. The union has also lead wildcat strike action over the attack
on Najaf last year; blockaded access to tankers serving British troops;
expelled Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root from all oil
sector worksites; negotiated returns of workers sacked under the former
regime; and forced the exchange of 1000 imported Pakistani labourers
brought over by Kuwaiti giant ‘Al Khourafi Company’ for Iraqi workers
needing work. The GUOE also confronted Bremer’s humiliating Order 30
wage table with its own collectively crafted table and succeeded in
raising the minimum wage for oil workers from 69,000 Iraqi Dinar (then
$35) to 102,000 ($50) plus risk and location payments. The Union has
also secured land and building rights for homes for oil workers,
protects pipelines from sabotage and is active in finding work for
graduates from Basra’s Petroleum Institute.

One of the greatest strengths of the GUOE is that it was not organized
by and is not affiliated to any political party. It maintains a
commitment to political independence. Faraj Rabat Mizban, Executive
Committee member responsible for Culture and Media for the Union
explains, ‘When we come to work and we put on our uniforms, we are
workers, and we organize as workers, for workers, that is our role, that
is our responsibility as a union… We are no instrument of any party’. At
a time when the country’s working class is fraught with the demands and
pressures of co-opting and competing parties and religious forces, this
is the key to successful union building.

GUOE President Hassan Jumaa Awad al Assadi, three times a prisoner of
the Baath regime and a father of six, is standing in his living room. It
is a decrepit, paint-chipped stone-walled room, bearing little more than
a picture of the Imam Ali and verses from the Q’ran, a TV, battered
cupboard and a stack of mattresses. The guestroom’s ceiling scatters a
daily faint dusting of plaster snow on the carpet; it’s falling apart.
His whole home is just four rooms and a rooftop, nestled in a street
just a few blocks away from where US missiles hit civilian homes between
the 1991 and 2003 wars. Despite over 30 years service at the Southern
Oil Company, Hassan still cannot afford to buy his own home – he and his
family live in rented accommodation. ‘Look at my home now’, says Hassan
smiling, ‘I don’t even want to think what it will like if privatization
happens!’ On the issue of privatization and reconstruction in Iraq, he
feels short-term contracts which can bring needed investment and new
technology to Iraq’s oil industry are the way forward. ‘If I have a
house that needs some renovation, I can hire someone and they can come
and help me, give me some materials, help with fixing it and then they
can leave. This is the kind of investment we are looking for’.

Hassan and other members of the Union believe there has been a policy of
deliberate degradation of the oil industry following the war aimed at
selling privatization as a form of progress and necessary for any
reconstruction. The autonomous reconstruction efforts of oil workers, in
particular at the Iraqi Drilling Company (IDC) have proved this logic

It’s a sweltering day in late May and we are all piled into IDC manager
Naser Muhsin Mohan’s cramped, bare, computer-less cabin at the foot of a
giant drilling platform. Basra’s desert, the topsoil to a ‘large lake of
oil’ upon which we are frequently told the governorate rests, stretches
all around us, burning in the gaining midday heat. Wiping his brow, boss
Mohan begins to talk to us about Privatisation. ‘There is a lot of talk,
particularly on the Arab satellite channels about the privatisation, but
this is just propaganda. Those who do not believe in Iraqi people are
spreading this propaganda; we have the intelligence and skill to do our
own reconstruction’. On the issue of the looting of the IDC post-war,
Mohan is quietly bitter. British troops he says, ‘Did not prevent the
looting of the IDC’ (Iraqi Drilling Company). For four months the
company was left open to ransacking and theft. Rigs and wells were
stripped of their parts and left dysfunctional. ‘People were saying that
this was the end of the Iraqi Drilling Company, they wanted to consign
it to the dustbin of history’ adds Ghafla Talib Dahmash, the leader of
the IDC union. A tall, sturdy, work-worn man, he has spearheaded
autonomous reconstruction efforts at the Iraqi Drilling Company. ‘But we
proved them wrong’. In just 45 days, the first drilling rig was back up
and running. Since the virtual write-off of the IDC, a further 12 rigs
have been reconstructed by the workers. ‘And we did this without any
help, not from foreign companies, the occupation, not even from the
Iraqi government’ adds Dahmash. ‘And we don’t need foreign companies or
their privatisation, Iraqi workers are capable of carrying out
reconstruction’. It is a sentiment we hear echoed up and down the
worksites we visit, and which I heard two years ago in Bergeseeya and
North Rumeilla Refineries, accompanied by the vow, ‘Privatisation will
happen over our dead bodies’. Without international pressure and
solidarity, it may well do.

Iraq’s oil industry had to be sustained. Historically, throughout three
wars and 13 years of genocidal sanctions, it has remained the economic
backbone of the country, and as such it has developed as a key,
constant, and in many cases intergenerational mass space for social
contact, co-operation, relationship building and social organisation. As
a result, it bears the conditions which have formed a community in a
country where communities were patrolled, infiltrated, carved up,
deported and massacred, and the ethos of collective struggle and
organisation, stolen and smashed. Workers in the oil industry suffered
intense surveillance and repression under the regime, which only
reinforced their collective consciousness of their necessity and power
in terms of creating Iraq’s wealth. It is these conditions and this
consciousness which have formed a bedrock from which a union and a
struggle against the dictates of a brutal military and economic
occupation is being generated. If the millions who marched through the
streets demanding no blood for oil mean what they say, this is the
struggle which can turn that slogan into a reality.

Iraqi oil workers are fighting back, in a struggle which may see the
fruits of the war and occupation soured, and the prize which
Washington’s oil hawks have set their sights on, defended and held out
of reach. This is a resistance we can practically support and engage
with. A resistance we can communicate with; an open resistance demanding
international solidarity. We couldn’t stop the war, we can’t stop the
ongoing military operations, massacres and bombings carried out by
occupation forces in Iraq, but we can work to stop the corporate
occupation agenda, which depends on and is fuelled by war and massacre,
from being realised. An agenda which is being pushed from the centres of
the global North – London, Washington, Warsaw and beyond and which has
met its match in the form of thousands of workers in the oilfields of
southern Iraq, refusing, rejecting and vowing to hold out against the
corporate invasion and occupation Iraq. We have a responsibility to join

* A GUOE website will be up and running shortly. See for more details on how to support the

Extracts of the GUOE final conference communiqué:

1) The public sector economy of Iraq is one of the symbols of the
achievement of Iraqis since the revolution of 4th July 1958. It
represents the common wealth of all Iraqis who built this sector. Hence
it is impermissible that a Ministry or other party effect any change in
this sector without consulting the people through the Parliament or a
general referendum.

2) If certain of the public industrial plants suffer from problems and
faults, there are a variety of possible solutions and means, notably
with regard to machines, technology, and human resources required to
renew these plants. Iraqis have the capacity to do the work if given
the chance.

3) The present conjuncture of Iraq is one where the country lacks a
stable political infrastructure and a clearly defined economic system on
which the people can rely. This being so, the conference participants
believe that the privatisation of the oil and industrial sectors, or of
any part of them, will do great harm to the Iraqi people and their

Committee of Presidency of the Conference

The first conference on privatisation
Basra 26th May 2005

Ewa Jasiewicz
- e-mail:
- Homepage: