Basra protests explained

Citizens complain of shortages of water, electricity and jobs despite accounting for the majority of Iraq’s oil riches

When did the protests start?

The protests began last Sunday in Basra, the oil-rich province that is also home to some of the worst poverty in the country. During the week, two people were shot dead by security forces attempting to contain the unrest as protesters targeted oil facilities and sought to shut down the port of Umm Qasr.

The protests reached a fever pitch on Friday seemingly fueled at least in part by comments from Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader for the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites, indicating that he sympathized with the protesters grievances.

“It is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable areas in Iraq,” said a statement issued on his behalf, referring to Basra.

Why are southern Iraqis protesting?

Although Basra provides a staggering 80 per cent of Iraq’s oil riches with its more than 200 billion barrels of estimated reserves, it has little to show for it as residents complain that oil revenues are not being invested back into the province.

Widespread unrest is engulfing southern Iraq as Iraqis frustrated by shortages of electricity, water and jobs vent their anger, setting fire to political offices, attacking government infrastructure and deepening uncertainty about the country’s shaky political future. This is not the first time that demonstrations, triggered at least initially by the lack of electricity during the hot summer months, have destabilised southern Iraq.

Persistent power shortages since the US-led invasion leave people sweltering without fans or air conditioners. This year conditions have been worsened by a severe drought, which has reduced the availability of water, and a decision by Iran to cut off the electricity it exports to Iraq because of a dispute over payments, further reducing the supply.

But these demonstrations seem more widespread and by Friday had taken on a decidedly political and anti-Iranian flavor.

The protesters are turning much of their wrath against the Shiite parties that have dominated Iraqi politics since the toppling of Saddam Hussain in 2003, as well as against Iran, which is closely allied to the Shiite political establishment.

Iraqis say they blame the government, including Al Abadi and many other Shiite politicians, for the failure to provide jobs, infrastructure and improve the economy.

Allegations of corruption at all levels of government are widespread, and the close relationship of many of the Shiite elites with Iran has deepened the resentment.

“We’ve had enough of these parties who put Iranian interests ahead of us and treat the people like wood to burn when they need money,” said Abdul Rahman Mohammad, 36, who has been participating in the protests in Basra, told the Washington Post.

“What’s happening now is an explosion after years of pressure. We want our rights and we have nothing to lose because they took everything.”

In a video showing the attack on the Dawa Party headquarters in Najaf, a protester is heard referring scornfully to the party that has dominated Iraqi politics since 2006 as “the Iranian Dawa Party.”

In another video, demonstrators can be heard chanting “burn the Iranian parties.”

“We want to end these corrupt political parties just like we ended Saddam,” said Haidar Al Taie, 24, a medical student in Najaf who was one of those who burned the Dawa office. “This party has been sucking our blood since 2003, and look at them now: They are the richest people.”

How has the government responded?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi visited Basra on Friday in a bid to restore calm.

He met the governor of the oil-rich province and energy chiefs, Iraq’s top Shiite authority voiced support for the protesters.

Al Abadi ordered local officials to sort out “the legal status” of security guards employed by the interior ministry at oil facilities.

These guards receive no benefits and work without contracts unlike their peers at the interior ministry.

At a later meeting with local tribal leaders Al Abadi pledged to “spend the necessary funds for Basra, including on services and reconstruction”.

On Sunday, he announced that his government would release funds to Basra for water, electricity and health services.

Was Basra always poor?

No. The freshwater canals that once honeycombed through the city earned it the name the Venice of the East in the 1950s.

Elegant walkways flanked the Shatt Al Arab, the river cutting through the city. Legend has it that Sinbad the Sailor embarked on a journey from Basra’s shores.

Given its rich history and location, Basra should be booming today.

It’s a metropolis of more than 2 million, home to Iraq’s only port and its main gateway to Iran.

But the canals, what’s left of them, now are lined with trash and exude a miasma tinged with the scent of sewage.

With the Iraqi army busy fighting Daesh since 2014, the security vacuum allowed tribes and mafias to rule at will in Basra where corruption, kidnapping, oil and drug trade has become rampant.

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