Unrest in Iraq continues despite government assurances, crackdown
LONDON - Iraq’s government is seeking to end protests in the country’s oil-rich south with promises of jobs and better services but the root causes of the unrest remain almost intact.
Coupled with promises to improve conditions, Iraqi authorities deployed security forces backed by armour and arrested hundreds of protesters in the southern city of Basra, the epicentre of the demonstrations that began July 8.
The arrests reduced the size of protests in Basra but what has happened there has shown that the Shia government is not immune to opposition among its primary constituency — the Shia south — and exposed the frustration felt by Iraqis who have not seen real improvement in their lives in the 15 years since the US-led invasion rid them of Saddam Hussein.
“The protesters are not convinced that the government promises can be met but they are waiting to see how serious the government is in addressing these problems. The situation could blow up again,” activist Laith Hussein told the Associated Press.
The government sought to play down the protests and cast doubt on the motives of the demonstrators. It maintains that the protesters’ demands are legitimate but says infiltrators and saboteurs were behind the violence that, the Health Ministry said, left at least nine people dead and nearly 60 injured.
For decades, the residents of Basra have complained that they did not get their fair share of the natural resources of their province.
Basra has also suffered from a cutoff of the funds it once received from oil and gas sales. Previously, Baghdad accorded a specific share to Basra and other oil-producing provinces as compensation for environmental damage from the industry and to boost local budgets. Basra was getting $1 for each barrel of oil produced or refined and for every 150 cubic metres of gas produced, along with 5% of taxes collected at border crossings and sea ports.
That arrangement was removed from the budget in 2014 when the Iraqi economy was shaken by plummeting oil prices and the urgent need to finance the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). That translated into a loss of millions for Basra. Last month, an average of 3.5 million barrels a day were exported from the province, with less than 500,000 barrels from oilfields elsewhere in the country.
Many in Basra have long considered their political elite centred in the religious Shia parties as corrupt and unfit to govern. They complain the parties and their affiliated militias control business and vital government facilities, such as the key oil port of Um Qasr and border crossings with Iran and Kuwait. Politicians distribute jobs among supporters and collect “taxes” and commissions on goods at ports.
Residents say security suffered in Basra after the government redeployed forces from the province to the front lines in the 3-year fight against ISIS, which ended last year. This, they argue, allowed drug trafficking and other crimes to flourish and allowed local tribes to gain strength and influence outside the government’s reach.
It is unlikely the government will fulfil its promises to Basra residents or elsewhere in the south in the short term given that the present government is a caretaker administration and a new one is months away following parliamentary elections in May whose results have been legally questioned.
Just a few months after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS, social grievances that once simmered on the back burner have boiled over in the protests.
The protests represent “an explosion of rage at an entire system that has brazenly robbed Iraqis of the chance for a better life,” Iraq expert Fanar Haddad told Agence France-Presse.
With ISIS in retreat, “the failings of the Iraqi political classes in all aspects of governance and economic management come into sharper relief,” added Haddad.
To restore calm, Abadi announced investments of $3 billion for Basra province and pledged additional spending on housing, schools and services.
It is “likely that the Iraqi political classes will bunker down and wait for the storm to pass while offering cosmetic concessions and promises of reform,” said Haddad.
However, the problems facing the country are long-term ones “that require far more than Iraq’s self-interested political classes are likely to be able to offer,” he said.
Iraq is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC after Saudi Arabia.
“We the people of Basra hear about the Iraqi oil and its huge revenues but we never enjoy its benefits,” 24-year-old unemployed protester Esam Jabbar told Reuters. “Strangers have decent jobs at our oilfields and we don’t have the money to pay for a cigarette. That’s wrong and must be stopped.”