There is good reason for insurgents to take on the trade unionists. The IFTU supports a secular state, representative of Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurd. Its leaders have called for the insurgency to end. The union has endorsed U.N. Resolution 1546, which sets the time table for Iraq’s transition into a democracy. The group was one of comparatively few in Iraq to back the American-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s interim government, the continued presence of coalition soldiers for security, and the Jan. 30 elections. Right before the elections, the IFTU’s Foreign Representative Abdullah Muhsin emailed me a simple and direct view of their importance: “[T]he elections in Iraq are essential to avoid a brutal assault by reactionary forces.” The Iraqi labor movement, in other words, had been a consistent enemy of the insurgency, and a strong proponent of a free, self-governing Iraq.

Saleh’s murder is more than just a sign of the frailty of Iraq’s move towards democracy. It’s also an apt example of how Iraq’s labor movement has fared under U.S. control. Americans have largely left the Iraqi unions to fend for themselves, and in some cases actively undercut them. As a result, Iraq has been significantly deprived of the movement perhaps most willing and best equipped to nurture along a nascent national democracy in a religiously and ethnically divided country: organized labor.

From Poland to Brazil to post-apartheid South Africa, organized labor has played a critical role in helping new democracies emerge and stabilize. America’s own history of successful occupation teaches the same lesson. After the Japanese surrender in World War II, the country’s newly-appointed premier knocked on the door of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was greeted with a memorandum outlining the framework for Japan’s democratization. First on the list was the “emancipation of the women of Japan through their enfranchisement.” Second was “the encouragement of the unionization of Labor.” Had the American administrators in Iraq followed MacArthur’s model and placed a similar emphasis on nurturing labor, that move alone would not have turned Iraq into a stable, civil society. But given the history of labor in emerging democracies and the dearth of other nation-building alternatives in Iraq, sheltering and encouraging a union movement ought to have been pretty close to first in the reconstruction playbook. Instead, it seems to have come somewhere near last.

Iraq’s contemporary labor movement was founded during the 1920s and played a crucial role in overthrowing the British-supported monarchy in 1958. The nation’s unions had never coexisted very easily with the Ba’ath movement. While the Ba’ath Party preached a secular pan-Arabism organized on fascist lines, the Communist-inflected labor movement advocated a socialism inclusive of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Whether someone was a Shiite, a Sunni, or a Kurd didn’t matter according to the prevailing ideologies–what mattered was whether they were workers. For this, “the Iraqi Communist Party was viewed as selfless modernizers by the people, willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs in social justice,” Iraq historian Peter Sluglett of the University of Utah told me. While both Communists and Ba’athists helped lead the 1958 revolution against Iraq’s royal family, they split soon afterwards, largely over the Ba’ath concept of wahda, or Arab unity, which excluded Kurds and other non-Arabs, critical members of the Communist coalition. So, when the Ba’ath wrestled control of the state in the coup of 1963, they systematically set out to eliminate their only real rival, the Communists. Seeing the labor movement as essentially red, the Ba’ath would stage intermittent purges of the trade unions for a decade and a half.

When Saddam finally consolidated political control of the country in 1979, things got much worse for labor. The new president immediately stepped up the persecution of dissidents in the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), Iraq’s most powerful union, intimidating and torturing workers to flesh out dissidents, and appointing loyal apparatchiks to key positions. (The Saddam-controlled labor union was for a time in the 1980s headed by Ali Hassan al-Majid, the Hussein loyalist who would later become infamous as the war criminal “Chemical Ali.”) In 1987, Saddam decided he couldn’t abide even this arrangement, and effectively banned trade unions in the public sector, where the majority of people worked. In response, organized labor went underground with a small cadre of activists and true believers collecting information on the regime’s crimes and funneling it to the West, where many of the movement’s leaders, now in exile, were agitating for regime change.

So by March 2003, when the first American and allied tanks rolled into Iraq, laborites there, who had been hoping for Saddam’s overthrow for decades, were mostly cheering. By mid-May, the IFTU arose out of the labor movement that had resisted Saddam for more than two decades. Composed of liberals, nationalists, and communists who represented Iraq’s Mueslix-like mixture of ethnicity and faith, the IFTU was one of the few existing organizations in Iraq whose membership crossed sectarian lines.

But from the time the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took possession of Iraq, the Americans running the country not only declined to engage the labor movement in the process of building a nation, but also worked actively to undermine labor’s ability to play a constructive role.

First, during his tenure, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer repealed virtually the whole Iraqi legal structure with his so-called 100 Orders. He did not, however, repeal Saddam’s 1987 Labor Code, which forfeited the right of public sector workers to bargain collectively. That decision, though deeply foolish for purposes of nation-building, made perfect sense to the movement ideologues staffing the U.S. occupation. Much of the CPA’s effort in Baghdad was devoted to helping create a conservative’s ideal state, complete with a 15 percent flat tax on individual and corporate income. Bremer’s crew was so zealous that they tried, in September 2003, to privatize virtually the whole economy–200 state-owned firms. Legalizing labor unions would not have been helpful, to say the least, to these privatization plans. As Bjorn Brandtzaeg, a former CPA team leader for trade and industry, wrote in the Financial Times, “Instead of focusing on restarting the main industrial complexes as soon as possible after the end of hostilities, a team of ideologically motivated CPA officials with close ties to the US administration pursued a narrow privatization strategy. The result[s]everal hundred thousand people remained out of work.”

Ironically, and perhaps predictably, this U.S.-engineered unemployment helped undermine the administration’s privatization plans. Iraqi workers feared privatization would worsen unemployment, seeing that overseas subcontractors were already importing cheap skilled foreign workers for jobs that Iraqis believed were rightfully theirs. Massive protests organized by Iraqi labor unions ensued. Bowing to labor’s demands, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) petitioned the CPA to forestall privatization until a democratically elected government of Iraqis had assumed power. The CPA reluctantly heeded their advice.

The clash over privatization didn’t exactly improve the U.S. attitude towards Iraq’s labor unions. In late 2003, the CPA refused to unfreeze union assets, which the IFTU argued were rightfully theirs. In a 2004 interview with Scotland’s Morning Call, the IFTU’s General Secretary Subhi Abdullah Mashadani complained, “It’s not Bremer’s money, it is not CPA money–it is our money.”

The truth is a bit more complicated. The IFTU is claiming ownership of the assets of the old GFTU, the once free and independent union that Saddam transformed into a “yellow union” by executing and imprisoning its leadership and appointing apparatchiks throughout its hierarchy. From then on, the GFTU functioned as an “extension of the party and the state,” according to Harry Kamberis of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, which provides training and assistance to labor unions in emerging democracies, including to the IFTU. The GFTU still survives in Iraq, leaving it and the IFTU to fight over the frozen assets. As Abdulwahab Alkebsi of the National Endowment for Democracy told me, bad blood exists between the two unions because the “GFTU represented the status quo underneath Saddam and therefore had the assets.” The IFTU contends that the GFTU remains Ba’athist, while the GFTU claims it has cleansed itself of any regime residue. Their struggle aside, there’s no clear rationale for why, after two years of occupation, a decision or compromise couldn’t have been made that released at least some of the assets to deserving unions–especially since six of the 12 IFTU constituent unions democratically elected their leadership. (When I asked why the U.S. government hadn’t come to a decision on the union assets, the State Department’s press office replied that the “Iraq office [was] not able to speak on this issue.”)

The U.S. government further signaled its attitude towards Iraqi labor unions in early December 2003 when coalition troops stormed the IFTU headquarters in Baghdad, ransacked their offices, arrested eight union workers, and shut down the office. Within a day, the arrested were released uncharged from Al Muthan airbase, but IFTU headquarters remained shut for seven months. The jailed men accused the United States of relying on information provided by a member of Saddam’s old regime, Abdullah Murad Ghny, who owns a major private transport company whose workers had begun to organize. While in jail, Turkey Al Lehabey, the General Secretary of the Communication and Transport Workers Union, an IFTU affiliate, said a local American commander named Kelly had told the men, “Iraq has no sovereignty and no political parties or trade unions. We do not want you to organize in either the north or south transport stations.” He added, “You can organize only after June 2004; for now, you have an American governor.”

The raid had Muhsin and his followers equating American intimidation with Ba’athist repression. “They saw how Saddam Hussein brutalized the labor movement,” Muhsin told me, “and then, [when] they saw the American forces come under the slogan of liberation, [they felt that they were] being terrorized by the same forces and not given a reason why.” The State Department declined repeated offers to comment on any questions relating to the raid and how it perceived the IFTU’s role in an independent Iraq; nevertheless, it seems clear that the CPA didn’t exactly consider the union a partner.

What’s especially maddening about the U.S. government’s attitude towards the IFTU is that organized labor has repeatedly played a vital stabilizing and democratizing role in situations that, in some cases, come close to that which Iraq finds itself in today. In Poland, Solidarity quickly evolved from a labor crusade into a social movement that peacefully brought down the communist regime and, once in power, established a system of regular, free elections. The trade-union movement in Brazil had a similar effect, helping to end 21 years of oppressive military rule and usher in 15 years of representative government. But perhaps the most significant precursor comes from South Africa. There, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) not only agitated for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but, as the apartheid government was losing power, helped keep the country from splintering along racial and tribal lines. “Labor organizations are based on social class identity and as a result cut across divisions of tribe and culture so that you’ll find Zulu and Xhosa workers of COSATU,” said Professor Mike Bratton of Michigan State University. “In that sense, COSATU is one of the major organizations that helps build a sense of national, non-tribal identity.” Instructively, all of these countries have remained democracies: According to Freedom House’s annual survey, each country is ranked “free” in its commitment to both political rights and civil liberties.

Groups like the IFTU, then, are precisely what Iraq needs to make a successful transition to stable self-government. Iraqi political leaders seem to understand this. In January 2004, the Iraqi Governing Council recognized the IFTU as “the legitimate and legal representatives of the labor movement in Iraq.” America’s allies in Iraq also seem to get it. By March of that year, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking before the House of Commons, named the IFTU as the legitimate representative of Iraq’s labor movement, England’s union partner in the rebuilding of the war-tattered nation.

Even the Bush administration seems to have come around, at least a bit. In January of 2004, one month after the U.S. military raid on the IFTU offices, the president devoted a few lines of his State of the Union speech to acknowledging trade unions as a crucial component of democratization. “I will send you a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy” Bush told Congress, “and to focus its new work on the development of free elections, and free markets, free press, and free labor unions in the Middle East.” Yet while Bush announced that the building of free trade unions would henceforth be official U.S. policy, the priority that policy has since been given can be seen in the budget numbers. The National Endowment for Democracy has spent $1.5 million for Iraq’s free trade union movement–compared with the total of $40 million the State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency gave Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

Years from now, when historians try to figure out what precisely went wrong in the American occupation of Iraq and why, there will be many candidates: the failure to win enough international support; insufficient numbers of ground troops; the decision to ignore plans drawn up by experienced nation-building experts outside the Pentagon. But somewhere on the list will be the administration’s indifference, indeed hostility, to Iraqi organized labor. The Iraqi people are paying a price for that attitude.