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Founder of Iraq Oil Workers Union Rejects U.S.-Backed Oil Law as “Robbery”

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As the Iraqi Cabinet approves part of a controversial oil law, we speak with Faleh Abood Umara, the general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions and a founding member of the oil workers union in Iraq. He calls on Iraqi lawmakers to reject the legislation. We also speak with Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union and the first woman to head a national union in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Iraq, opposition is growing among some Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions to a controversial oil law backed by Washington. Draft legislation on the distribution of oil wealth in Iraq was approved by the Iraqi Cabinet Tuesday and could go to Parliament for review as early as next week. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the bill “the most important law in Iraq.”

U.S. lawmakers have demanded Iraq advance the measure before Congress approves additional war funding, but critics say the law would leave Iraq’s oil open to foreign takeover. A parliamentary boycott by Sunni and Shia factions is expected to slow the bill’s passage.

In addition, six Nobel Peace Prize laureates have released a statement in opposition to the legislation. The laureates include Betty Williams, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchu, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi and Wangari Maathai. The statement read, in part, “The Iraqi oil law could benefit foreign oil companies at the expense of the Iraqi people, deny the Iraqi people economic security, create greater instability, and move the country further away from peace.”

Last month, the Iraqi oil workers union went on a strike to protest the law. Two leading union members recently traveled to the United States to meet with members of Congress and attend last week’s U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein is president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, the first woman to head a national union in Iraq. Faleh Abood Umara is the general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions and a founding member of the oil workers union in Iraq. In 1998 he was detained by Saddam Hussein’s regime for his activities on behalf of his co-workers. Well, they recently came to New York and joined us in our firehouse studio. I began by asking Faleh Abood Umara to describe the current situation for oil workers in Iraq and why he’s protesting this proposed oil law.

FALEH ABOOD UMARA: [translated] With regards to the situation of the Iraqi oil workers, they’re persevering in their work and preserving the Iraqi oil wells. The reason we went on strike was to make 27 demands, which we submitted to the Iraqi prime minister. He agreed to them, but the minister of oil did not implement the demands that led to the strike.

The most important point or one of the most important points is our demand not to rush through the new Iraqi oil law, because we believe that this oil law does not serve the interests of the Iraqi people. So we ask our friends in the United States, as well, to stand in solidarity with us and publicize the ill effects of this law, so that it never is agreed upon in the Parliament.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the law.

FALEH ABOOD UMARA: [translated] According to Article 111 of the Iraqi Constitution, which states that the oil and gas of Iraq are owned by the Iraqi people and they have the right to control it. But when you look into the details of the law, many of the articles of the law actually conflict with this preamble of the law, the most important point of which is the issue of the production-sharing agreements, which allows the international oil companies, especially the American ones, to exploit the oil fields without our knowledge of what they are actually doing with it. And they take about 50 percent of the production as their share, which we think it’s an obvious robbery of the Iraqi oil.

We also object to the procedure by which these companies are given the contracts for exploiting the oil, because it allows the granting of the contracts with the aid of foreign advisers. We demanded that it’s actually the Iraqi experts that need to be consulted with regards to the granting of the contracts.

In brief, there is hardly an article in the law that actually benefits the Iraqi people. But they all serve American interests in Iraq. And we know well that the law was actually written here in the United States, with the help of James Baker and Ms. Rice and the experts from the IMF. And it serves the interests of the American government and not the Iraqi people.

We’re still negotiating with the Iraqi Parliament and the Iraqi government, and we succeeded in halting the discussion of the law in the Parliament until next October. And we hope that we will manage to modify some of the articles of the law. As regards to the strike, we actually declared victory last week.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, who is the first woman to head a large union in Iraq. It’s the electrical workers union. Can you talk about why you’re here and why you protested at [BearingPoint] Cross, at this military contractor?

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] She thanks you for this opportunity to talk. We were invited by the U.S. Labor Against the War to talk directly to the American people about the problems that we’re suffering under the occupation and ask for the support to pressure the American administration to pull out the armed forces out of Iraq.

As regards to the demonstration, it’s an account of our certainty that this company was consulted in the formulation of the Iraqi oil law. There was a technocratic committee that was convened in Iraq, headed by Mr. Barham Salih, the vice president, and this committee consulted many foreign firms, and BearingPoint is one of those companies. That’s why we demonstrated against this company and to ask this company and others to stop interfering with Iraqi affairs, because it’s companies like these, plus the IMF, who are the ones who are pressuring the Iraqi government to pass this law.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how you came to be head of the electrical workers union as a woman?

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] After the fall of the regime in 2003, union committees were formed in September of 2003. I was elected as head of one of these committees, and I was elected as president of the union in 2004, during the founding conference. My term was two years. So after the interim two years, I was elected — my term was renewed again after that.

AMY GOODMAN: Does it make you a target to be a union leader in Iraq now?

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] In the beginning, because our work actually interfered with the interests of some groups in Iraq, we were threatened. But now work is easier.

AMY GOODMAN: Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union, the first woman to head a national union in Iraq, and Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions, speaking — he’s from Iraq, speaking to us recently in our firehouse studio. This is Democracy Now!, We’ll return to the rest of that conversation. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Amer Tawfiq, from the soundtrack of the film About Baghdad, co-directed by Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi poet, novelist and filmmaker who will be joining us in our firehouse studio in a few minutes, after we finish the conversation with the two leading Iraqi union members. They were in the United States recently to meet with members of Congress. Faleh Abood Umara is the general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions, founding member of the Oil Workers Union in Iraq. And Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein is the president of the Electrical Utility Workers Union. She’s the first woman to head a national union in Iraq.

I asked her to talk about what the U.S. occupation means in Iraq and to describe the situation in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] It’s more stable than other places in — like in Baghdad, because they handed the security over to Iraqi forces security and the British forces were redeployed to the outskirts of the city. But the situation in Iraq, in general, and Basra, just like any other part of Iraq, suffers from the situation. It’s not very good, especially economically. We have about 65 percent unemployment rate, and nine million Iraqis live in poverty. The services are really bad, especially electricity. So for every hour of electrical current, we have six hours of black out, and sometimes they skip the actual hour of electrical current. And this is really an adverse situation, because it’s really hot and humid in the south.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did that compare under Saddam Hussein?

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] The electrical situation was better under Saddam. At least during the night you would have a constant electrical current. And this situation is such, because of the sabotage and exploding the power stations in the center of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: How has life changed for women in Iraq, in Basra, where you are?

HASHMEYA MUHSIN HUSSEIN: [translated] As a part of the Iraqi society, they suffer like everybody else, but also there were laws that were issued under the occupation that specifically targeted women, especially Law No. 137, which canceled the old civil law and delegated all issues that have to do with civil law to the local communities and religious communities, religious authorities. We took this very seriously and went out in demonstrations until the new law was canceled, but it was reintroduced through the new constitution, and we now demand the cancellation of this article.

As far as women’s rights are concerned, women are not completely suppressed. As you can see, I am right here in front of you. And we have 25 percent of the Parliament members who are women, and we seek, we hope that it will soon become 40 percent. And this is a result of our struggle and determination that women in Iraq will have their rightful place.

AMY GOODMAN: Faleh Abood Umara, your thoughts on the occupation? Do you think U.S. troops would leave immediately? And what would that mean for Iraq?

FALEH ABOOD UMARA: [translated] We consider that the occupation is vile to us. The main problem of Iraq is the occupation. I don’t think there would be extraordinary troubles when or if the occupation forces leave. And even assuming such an occurrence, we can eventually solve our problems ourselves. Our main problem is the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Faleh Abood Umara, why did you have trouble coming into this country? And are you afraid of returning back to Iraq?

FALEH ABOOD UMARA: [translated] I cannot be afraid of my own country. I love my country, and I’m prepared to lay my life for it.

I think that the technical problem I had had to do with a conversation I had with an American ambassador, because he accused me of not being diplomatic because I used the term “occupation forces,” instead of the “multinational forces” or “friendly forces.” So I discovered just before leaving that there was a problem with the termination date on the visa, so I was returned from the airplane, basically, in Amman, and I had to stay three more days in Amman before joining Hashmeya. And thanks to interference and pressure from friendly members of the Congress, who interfered and talked to the embassy over there in Amman, they expedited the correction of the date on the visa so that I could arrive here and give my message to the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the Federation of Oil Unions in Iraq, and Hashmeya Muhsin Hussein, president of the Electrical Utilities Workers Union, first woman to head a national union in Iraq, speaking recently in our firehouse studio.

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An Iraqi Rhapsody: Poet & Novelist Sinan Antoon on the U.S. Destruction of the Iraqi State, His Latest Novel and the Sad Statement that Iraq was Better Under Saddam Hussein

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