I never saw Hadi Salih (1949–2005) without his trademark innocent grin. Perhaps he was born wearing a smile and simply forgot it was there.
We first rubbed shoulders in Baghdad in the 1970s, at the Iraqi Communist Party’s print shop where he worked. I was a fledgling writer, and this was the only shop that printed publications written by someone outside the government. Salih was a clandestine unionist, an activity for which he was condemned to death and only amnestied long afterward. In our years of exile from Iraq, we worked together on a daily basis to produce the Iraqi Communist Party monthly al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (New Culture).
After returning to Iraq from Sweden in 2003 with his wife Corea and two children, Salih set about rebuilding the union movement. Today the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), with a membership of some 200,000, stands as a formidable democratic social movement defying communal or other parochial identities. I began to worry about Salih and his comrades when Coalition forces raided union offices for no apparent reason.
Following the series of macabre “insurgent” kidnappings and beheadings in 2004, my worries grew even sharper. Salih had this reassurance to offer at our last encounter in Baghdad in November 2004: “I am a worker and a unionist, not a politician. Who on Earth would wish to target me? They are killing your lot — writers and intellectuals.” Unbeknownst to him, however, he was on the hit list of those who have falsely donned the mantle of “the resistance.”
On January 4, 2005, a group of five murderers, probably ex-security men of the old regime, broke into Salih’s Baghdad home and waited for him in the dark. They strangled him with a wire, riddled him with bullets and then set his body afire. This was a killing of vengeance. Reneging on the amnesty they had given Salih years before, the ex-security men desired to punish him for his successes rebuilding the IFTU after the fall of their regime. They killed him in an attempt to silence those — like Salih and his colleagues — who pursue a twin line of peaceful action for the restitution of Iraq’s sovereignty and the creation of an inclusive, federal democracy.
Millions of Iraqis are resisting the occupation peaceably, like Salih did. Their collective wisdom is that restitution of sovereignty should go hand in hand with popular participation in Iraq’s governance. Hadi Salih’s death is a wakeup call for all those who rightly opposed the war, but wrongly support the violence of “the resistance.” The millions of Iraqis who defied death to vote on January 30 reiterated Salih’s message to those who may see the bombing of pipelines, gas stations, union offices and voting stations as “anti-imperialist” endeavors. Skeptics should ask themselves at least one question: if the insurgents genuinely enjoy massive popular support, as they seem to claim, why did they fear the ballot?