Demonstrators pan corruption in oil sector, decry lack of jobs and scant access to electricity and water
The protests that began on July 8 in the southern city of Basra, Iraq do not appear to be abating. Since then, they have spread to the eastern and southern provinces, with violent clashes breaking out between civilians and security forces.
During the Basra protests, police opened fire on demonstrators, killing one person. At least seven others have subsequently been killed, dozens more injured and hundreds arrested, according to police and activists. Reports have emerged of protesters ransacking government and political offices, overtaking the border crossing with Kuwait and blocking travel at an airport in the south.
Focused mainly on economic grievances, the demonstrations erupted over high unemployment and accusations that Baghdad is failing to provide basic services to its citizens such as access to clean water and electricity. The protests also have targeted government corruption, particularly in the oil sector. Protesters in the south have thus attempted to choke-off production by blocking major roads leading to refineries and oilfields.
About 250 protesters on Tuesday organized a rally at the main entrance to Iraq’s giant Zubair oilfield, directing their anger at a sector that generates much of Iraq’s export revenue but which they view does little to benefit average people. They also claim that oil production facilities prefer to hire foreign workers as opposed to locals.
According to statistics from the Iraqi government, 10.8 percent of Iraqis are unemployed, a figure that is twice as high among youth; this, in a country in which nearly two-thirds of the population is under age 24.
Many protesters point the finger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, arguing that it resulted in a warped political system that benefits the wealthy while leaving the rest of the country to struggle with poor infrastructure and public services.
One factor exacerbating the protests is the heat, with chronic electricity shortages leaving many Iraqis without air conditioning. Simultaneously, the construction of a major dam has caused severe water shortages, for which Baghdad and neighboring countries are blamed.
The protesters are also venting against what they perceive as Iran’s increasing interference in Iraq’s political process. Last week, the Najaf-based party offices of Kata’ib Hizbullah, along with those of other political factions connected to Tehran, were set afire.
In an attempt to quell the protests, the Iraqi government has employed a carrot and stick approach. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently traveled to Basra in a bid to restore calm, announcing a $3 million investment in the province to improve housing, schools and services. But as the unrest continued, he deployed additional security forces to the region citing the potential for terrorists to exploit the chaos. Al-Abadi also ordered the government to cut-off access to the Internet and social media apps that have been used to organize rallies.
In May, a plurality of Iraqis voted for the Sairoon Alliance, headed by Shi’ite firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The party, which ran on a populist anti-corruption agenda, has not yet formed a new coalition. Amid this state of political limbo, analysts are debating how widespread the protests might become, perhaps even morphing into an Iraqi revolution on par with the “Arab Spring.”
Dr. Nussaibah Younis, an expert on Iraq at the London-based Chatham House think-tank, explained to The Media Line that “protests often erupt in Iraq in the summer months, when poor electricity prevents people from using air conditioners and fans to cope with the incredibly high temperatures.”
But, she noted, this time the protests are larger in scope. “The usual complaints are compounded by anger about the lack of clean water and high unemployment rates. Now that the government has defeated Islamic State,” Dr. Younis elaborated, “the Iraqi public has had enough of their excuses for poor performance. Iraqi citizens have lost faith in the political process, with less than 45 percent turning out to vote in the recent parliamentary elections.”
Michael Knights, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, likewise stressed to The Media Line that the ongoing protests are far from unprecedented. “Every summer you get a set of protests relating to heat in Iraq and the collapse of the electricity grid. The timing of the protests is often predictable, though in some years the electricity grid holds up particularly well or it isn’t quite as hot as it normally would be.”
Nevertheless, he noted that this particularly hot summer is accompanied by “a reduction in the amount of upstream water being released by Turkey and Iran, as well as dust storms coming from Iran. All these things are combining with general discontent in Iraq with the government, and boil over into these kind of protests.”
Knight concluded that the demonstrations are likely to fizzle out because while “every political party is blamed for the state the country is in…there is no revolutionary movement that is offering an alternative.”