Basra’s fury has Iran and its cronies in Iraq scared
Following a summer of unrest across southern Iraq, Baghdad’s political class and pro-Iran militia commanders thought they had contained Iraqis’ fury with a combination of state and paramilitary brutality and promises of reform and redevelopment.
Scorching temperatures helped ignite flaring tempers and demonstrators called for access to basic services, including economic opportunities, a regular power supply and clean water. Far from dousing the anger, politicians delayed the inevitable — another outbreak of popular unrest.
Once hailed as the “Venice of the East,” Basra’s famous canals and waterways have become little more than outlets for sewage. The stench of refuse and human waste clogs the humid air of the once grand city renowned for its sights and seafood.
In 2005, then-provincial Governor Mohammed Musabah told the Guardian that he had ambitions to restore Basra as a tourist destination by redeveloping its airport, city infrastructure and tackling rampant organised criminal groups, including pro-Tehran jihadist militias, so foreigners would not be targeted for kidnap and ransom operations.
By 2018, however, none of these goals had been achieved. The latest civil unrest was precipitated by Basra’s ever-worsening water crisis. Approximately 30,000 people have been admitted to hospitals suffering from water-borne diseases and unacceptably high cyanide content in Iraq’s third largest city’s water supply.
Understandably incensed by the government’s failure to meet its promise of improving standards, protesters took to the streets and security forces responded with deadly force, killing a dozen demonstrators in a few days. Protesters retaliated by throwing projectiles at government forces, burning administrative buildings and setting the Iranian consulate ablaze.
That last move is powerful in its symbolism. Since 2003, and particularly since militia violence effectively cleansed the city of its Sunni Arab inhabitants, Basra has been almost completely populated by Shia Arabs. This is common with other southern cities, including Nasiriya, which had mass unrest this summer.
These areas represent the electoral heartland and base of most of the powerful Iran-backed Shia Islamist parties that hold sway over the Iraqi political system, a system many have now lost faith in. If Shia Arabs are turning against the parties they have voted in for more than a decade, it could spell strategic disaster for Iran.
Iranian Ambassador to Iraq and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps veteran Iraj Masjedi presided over an opening ceremony of a new Iranian consulate September 11, stating that those who were attempting to sabotage Iraqi-Iranian relations would not succeed.
What Masjedi neglected to say was that those who torched his country’s consulate were normal Iraqis who were sick and tired of Tehran’s meddling and its support for political and jihadist groups in their country. Although Iran and its proxies have successfully pitted different ethno-sectarian groups against one another since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqis have started to again realise that their government is in thrall to foreign ayatollahs.
Many Iraqis, including most Shia Arabs who loyally served their country, will grimly remember the 8-year war they fought against Iran’s sectarian regime in the 1980s. They will also remember that they stood side-by-side with their fellow Iraqis irrespective of ethno-religious background. They will fondly look back on the days when they, despite an oppressive Ba’athist dictatorship, did not look at each other with distrust and fear.
These shared memories could form the foundation for a renewed sense of national identity, and if that identity is ever reforged, Iran’s mullahs and their puppets in Iraq will be in grave danger of losing control.