Iraqi Troops Face Off Against Striking Oil Workers

On the third day of an oil strike in southern Iraq, the Iraqi military has surrounded oil workers and the prime minister issued arrest warrants for the union leaders, sparking an outcry from supporters and international unions.

"This will not stop us because we are defending people's rights," said Hassan Jumaa Awad, president of IFOU. As of Wednesday morning, when United Press International spoke to Awad via mobile phone in Basra at the site of one of the strikes, no arrests had been made, "but regardless, the arrest warrant is still active." He said the "Iraqi Security Forces," who were present at the strike scenes, told him of the warrants and said they would be making any arrests.

The arrest warrant accuses the union leaders of "sabotaging the economy," according a statement from British-based organization Naftana, and said Maliki warned his "iron fist" would be used against those who stopped the flow of oil.

IFOU called a strike early last month but put it on hold twice after overtures from the government. Awad said that at a May 16 meeting, Maliki agreed to set up a committee to address the unions' demands.

The demands include union entry to negotiations over the oil law they fear will allow foreign oil companies too much access to Iraq's oil, as well as a variety of improved working conditions.

"Apparently they promise but they never do anything," Awad said, confirming reports the Iraqi Oil Ministry would send a delegation to Basra.

"One person from the Ministry of Oil accompanied by an Iraqi military figure came to negotiate the demands. Instead it was all about threats. It was all about trying to shut us up, to marginalize our actions," Awad said. "The actions we are taking now are continuing with the strike until our demands are taken in concentration."

The strike by the Iraq Pipelines Union in Basra started Monday, instigated by a decision by the Iraq Pipelines Co. to stop regular bonuses to workers. It is part of a larger picture, however, of 17 different demands laid out -- beginning last month -- to the Iraq Oil Ministry and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by the Iraq Federation of Oil Unions.

Since the strike began, two small pipelines delivering oil products to Baghdad and other cities have been closed, as has a larger pipeline that sends gas and oil to major cities, including Baghdad and utilities.

The strike started with domestic pipelines transporting oil and oil products, but Iraq's top oil unionist says it will soon encapsulate the 1.6 million barrels per day of oil Iraq sends to the global market.

Basra, home to much of Iraq's 115 billion barrels of oil -- the third-largest reserves in the world -- is also Iraq's main port. Awad said the unions will continue to restrict all oil exports, which bring in 93 percent of Iraq's federal budget funds. Such a move, combined with the choking off of much-needed supplies of transportation, cooking and heating fuels, is what the unions hope to use as leverage against Maliki.

Awad said "the atmosphere here is full of tension," and added that he wants to pressure the government to agree to their demands, not topple an already weak Maliki government.

"At the end we are hoping that the situation will not go that way," Awad said.

Maliki has been unable to meet a key benchmark set by the Bush administration and backed by the Democratic-led Congress: to pass an oil law. Many in Iraq, including oil experts and parliamentarians, are calling for the law to be put on hold. Negotiators haven't been able to agree on the best means of revenue distribution, whether central or regional governments will have more power in the oil sector, or how much access foreign investors will have.

Manfred Warda, general secretary of the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions, Wednesday sent a letter to Maliki condemning his tactics in addressing the strike. "Genuine and democratic trade unions are a cornerstone of democracy and at the same time are a force for reconciliation, peace and stability in a society," Warda wrote.

The Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation and London-based Trades Union Congress have also condemned the military action and arrest warrants.

A top official with the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine & General Workers' Union said his contacts say the strike had been toned down while negotiations were under way but has not ended.

"The strike began purely and simply at the pipeline," said Jim Catterson, the energy industry officer for Warda's federation, based in Brussels. IFOU "has membership capable of bringing an end to exports."

Kamil Mahdi, an Iraqi economist on Middle East affairs at the University of Exeter, said Maliki's swing from agreement with the unions to a military presence and warrants is "very surprising" and arresting the leaders won't quell the workers' demands.

"It may be the opposite. These are people who are highly respected in the community," he said. If the strike isn't stopped soon, "the effect on the global oil market will certainly be felt."

(Hiba Dawood contributed to this report.)

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