Iraqis shout slogans during ongoing protests in the southern city of Basra on August 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali
Iraqis shout slogans during ongoing protests in the southern city of Basra on August 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Haidar Mohammed Ali

Iraq’s southernmost city of Basra this summer is witnessing some of the hottest temperatures on record against the backdrop of 10-hour power cuts and rising unemployment. Less than a year after Baghdad declared victory over the Sunni extremist group Islamic State, residents of this oil-rich region have shifted their ire toward their own ruling Shiite factions.

Protesters in recent weeks have attempted to block the gates of key oil fields and burned tires to close the main roads in an attempt to bring the authorities to attention.

The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights says 16 protesters have been killed and hundreds of others wounded in confrontations with government security forces and militias, which have employed live fire and batons in their attempt to suppress the movement.

In a remarkable development, some central and southern regions of Iraq have seen protesters set fire to the headquarters of Shiite armed factions and political parties — indicating the extent of the population’s discontent with the authorities.

Protesters chant slogans condemning the way the country has been administered, and no political party has been left out.

Their longstanding demands are for the government to provide basic services — electricity and clean drinking water — and jobs for the unemployed. They have also called for an overhaul of Iraq’s governing system of sectarian quotas, demanded corrupt officials be referred to the judiciary, and denounced Iranian and American influence over Iraqi decision-making.

The demonstrators are already gearing up for more sit-ins and to intensify their protest movement after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which ends this weekend.

Oil for poverty

Basra is the third most populous province in Iraq, home to more than three million people. It is also one of the richest, producing about 80% of Iraq’s oil for export and has the country’s only port looking out onto the Gulf.

And yet this province, which sits atop a massive bed of oil, is notoriously lacking in utilities and is experiencing a massive unemployment crisis, as well as rising levels of poverty.

Since US forces invaded and occupied Baghdad in April 2003, Basra has been one of the main engines for protests in Iraq. The protests for years have centered around the provision of services — or lack thereof.

The city’s power outages last more than 10 hours per day, while the summer temperatures reach halfway to boiling. The water is not potable.

Nothing has changed for more than a decade. The last time the city had its infrastructure updated was in 1989 through funding from Gulf neighbors, according to Safa Khalaf, an Iraqi journalist from Basra.

This summer, as in summers past, major demonstrations broke out in July in Basra and spread to cities in the center of the country. Basra has long been the engine for demonstrations in Iraq.

Protesters jailed, lawyers targeted

At the start of the protest movement, the government responded by accusing the protesters of being remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime and driven by outside powers.

The Basra governor Asaad al-Eidani blamed the accelerating demonstrators on foreign influence. “We’ve noticed Facebook pages inciting the demonstrators from the South of France,” he said, prompting ridicule and indignation on social media.

As the protests persisted through July and into August, the authorities softened their tone and limited condemnation to those who resorted to violence.

But the government continued to employ “systematic violence” in dealing with the protests, according to Mustafa Saadoun, the director of the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights.

Jabbar al-Moussawi, the head of the security committee in Dhi Qar province, which neighbors Basra, says his forces have “worked from the very beginning to protect demonstrators and private and public property.”

“A number of policemen were wounded,” he said.

According to the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, 107 demonstrators were wounded by the security forces in Dhi Qar.

The Observatory says hundreds of protesters have been thrown in jail this summer. While many are later released, at least 10 remain in prison, according to Saadoun.

A number of lawyers have offered to take up the cases of the jailed demonstrators, exposing themselves to deadly threats.

One lawyer in Basra and another in Baghdad were assassinated by armed groups this summer, in apparent connection with their defense of the protesters. The security services have opened investigations into the killings, but have yet to find the perpetrators and bring them justice.

Not a drop to drink

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has issued a series of decisions intended to meet the demands of the protesters, including the provision of safe drinking water to Basra.

These pledges have yet to be fulfilled.

On August 21, Basra hospitals were flooded with more than 1,000 cases of bacterial infections due to water pollution in the province, according to the local Directorate of Public Health.

“We in the provincial council knew the decisions of Mr. Abadi were mere words because the money he discussed was not included in the budget,” said Basma al-Salami, a member of the Basra provincial council.

“How is it logical that he can allocate $3 billion to desalinate water just like that?” she demanded angrily.

Salami told the Asia Times she quit the council in protest after a demonstrator was killed by the security forces while trying to organize a sit-in in front of an oil field in Basra province.

As the protests continued, some have morphed into sit-ins.

In Muthanna province, where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, protestors attempted to set up tents in front of the provincial council but were repelled by the security forces.

The protesters have nevertheless stayed in place, and when temperatures rise during the day, they gather under a large Iraqi flag.

These demonstrators have been in this situation for about five weeks.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, demonstrations have been taking place in the countryside, while residents gather every Friday in the center of the city to sound off chants condemning rampant corruption and demanding better services.

The same is happening in Karbala, which is no less symbolic than Najaf for Shiites.

Enter Sistani

All the provinces witnessing demonstrations are predominantly Shiite, the majority sect in Iraq.

The highest religious authority in the province of Najaf is Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who holds symbolic weight for believers. There are many who listen to what he says in his weekly sermon following Friday prayers.

When the demonstration movement first broke out in July, Sistani sought to be a voice of calm in his weekly speeches, leading to accusations by demonstrators that religious authority was giving cover to the ruling Shiite political parties.

Sistani soon shifted his message, urging the demonstrators to exert “controlled anger” to gain their rights.

Shiite parties hold about half of the seats in Iraq’s parliament, in addition to a clear majority of ministerial posts.

“Politicians should pay careful attention to the sermons of the Shiite religious authority (Sistani) and his demand for the rights of the people because his is the real compass and can defuse the crisis if politicians meet the people’s legitimate demands,” said security head Moussawi.

The supreme religious authority of the Shiites has also addressed the governing elites.

Sistani has called on the political parties to choose a prime minister for the next government who will “be firm, strong and courageous in the fight against financial and administrative corruption.” He has also called for new legislation to curb corruption.

Sistani, who is often described as the safety valve for the political process in Iraq, threw the ball in the court of the Shiite parties.

He said this summer that if the political process does not change, “the people will be compelled to develop their peaceful protest methods to impose their will on the officials.”

“And there will be new faces on the scene,” he warned.

But neither the resort to violence by the demonstrators nor the warning of Sistani seems to have reached the ears of the political class.

The political parties that won in the May parliamentary elections are now locked in talks to form a government. These negotiations appear no different from previous ones.

The dialogue between the political blocs centers on the re-division of the administration of the country on a sectarian basis, without the development of a government program that takes into account the provision of basic services or the elimination of corruption.

On social media and protest Facebook pages, demonstrators agree that the talks between the parties will not lead to any progress in reaching their demands.

“If the new government is formed by the usual pattern of sectarian quotas — which it most likely will be — the situation will explode in an unprecedented manner,” said Basra journalist Khalaf.

“It will begin again next spring with another rise in temperatures, the failure of the winter planting season, and the entry of new graduates into the unemployment market.”

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