After the Iraqi parliament reconvened for the first time in two months, protests broke out again on 28 September by those who are believed to be supporters of the (Sadri) movement in the heavily guarded green area that comprises government buildings and foreign mission offices in the Iraqi capital. That area has later been targeted by missiles, detonated in the parliament forecourt.
Protests were not limited to the capital’s green area; they also extended to a number of southern parts of the country, in the provinces of Basra, Thiqar and Maysan, opposing reconvening the parliament. In Basra, protesters invaded the city hall, occupied it for a short period of time before riot police could boot them out.
On 29 September, police announced that 4 missiles had been launched on the perimeter of the green area from eastern Baghdad.
The return of protests and accompanying escalations indicate the continuation of political rivalry that is taking place since months, hence, the resolution for the current political stagnation seems far-off.
Even though the media is focusing on the capital’s green area escalations, the demonstrations down south, especially in Basra are no less important.
Protests in the South
Protests in Southern Iraq are not new, they have been usual since 2018. It can be said that those protests were the motive for the October 2019 uprising.
The real take-off of the southern protests was in June, 2018 in Basra province, calling for improving services, and then extended to the rest of southern provinces (Thiqar, Maysan, Babylon, Najaf and Diwaniya), calling for improving the quality of life, combating corruption, unemployment and rising prices. In June, 2018, protests intensified, turned into attacking local government offices. Work stopped for several days at (Um Elkasr) seaport, the biggest in Basra province, in addition to blockading the residence of the Prime Minister (Haider El Abady) during his visit to the province. Protesters refused to meet with him and requested him to leave. Protesters also invaded and completely controlled Najaf province airport, blockaded the house of Thiqar mayor as well as the city hall, they also camped in tents in front of the Babylon province city hall, and cut off the road between Basra and Baghdad.
As protests intensified, the Iraqi government in its attempts to contain people’s anger, made a number of decisions as follows: allocating $3 billion for development in southern provinces, offering job vacancies, expanding the electricity grid, building water treatment stations, importing electricity from Saudi Arabia and Iran to fulfill the needs of southern provinces, in addition to replacing a number of government and security officials.
However, none of these measures seemed to have succeeded to curb people’s anger. People took to the streets once again in September 2018 and set fire to the Iranian consulate building as an expression of dissatisfaction with political corruption. In December 2018, protests re-sparked in Basra coinciding with the Minister of Finance’s visit to the province (Fouad Hassan).
In October 2019, protests erupted, intensified and became violent. Lots of government and political parties’ offices were set on fire. The government imposed curfew in Diwaniya, Babylon, Muthanna, Basra, Wassit, Thiqar and Maysan provinces.
On the first anniversary of October 2019 uprising, the government in November 2020 imposed curfew in the same previously mentioned provinces, as a result of violent actions within the new wave of protests that called for combating corruption, improving services and securing job vacancies.
In February 2021, the southern protests took a new dimension where demonstrations took place in Thiqar province for 5 days in a row, calling for isolating the mayor Nazim El-Waeli over corruption and misconduct accusations. Even though Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi had responded to the protesters demands, protests continued in Thiqar, and extended to Babylon, Najaf and Diwaniya, requesting improving life standards and economic situation, as well as impeaching corrupt officials. In December 2021, southern protests sparked once again, calling for improving services and jobs for graduates.
It can be seen that the continuation of protests is fed by the ongoing lack of a number of basic needs in southern Iraq, which can be summarized as follows:
Electricity Crisis: Southern Iraq suffers repeated power outage especially in summer, sometimes for 20 hours a day, in a temperature of around 50 degrees Celsius. According to the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, as a result of cutting off electricity supply from Iran, hours of power outage increased in the provinces of Thiqar, Maysan and Basra in the south.
In June 2022, the Iraqi electricity sector faced a new challenge when Iran cut off its gas supplies to Iraq as it had not been able to pay its financial dues which were estimated at $1.2 billion as a result of the failure of politicians to form a government, while the interim government did not possess the authority to make due payments, which led to a shortage of approximately 7,000 Megawatts out of 20,000 MW.
Despite the government’s plans to purchase gas from Qatar over the coming few months, it is not assumed to replace the Iranian gas, taking into consideration that disconnecting gas supplies from Iran means a shortage of almost 30 percent in Iraq electricity.
Moreover, the Iraqi electricity sector is also facing systemic sabotage acts on high voltage transmission lines between provinces; over a 100 operations occurred in 2021, causing power networks in some areas to go completely out of service, while corruption and misconduct still exist.
Despite the efforts by consecutive Iraqi governments over three decades to manage this sector, through increasing allocated finances and signing several investment agreements, the situation remains unchanged.
Solving Water Crisis: Iraq in general and south provinces in particular face water shortage problems caused by the dams built on Transboundary Rivers in Iran and Turkey. That led to drying up of rivers especially in Basra, as well as raised water salinity ratio due to receiving excessive amounts of the gulf salt water. Moreover, Iran is dumping trash in Karun river that feeds the Shatt Al-Arab river which raised its water salinity and developed bacteria that caused poisoning.
Water crisis caused reduction in agricultural land area, especially wheat fields, in addition to huge fish death in fish farms. That led people to migrate and abandon their lands which –as time passes- will be uninhabitable.
Combating Corruption and Improving the Standard of Living: Defeating corruption and impeachment of those who are involved in it, is the strongest demand of protesters since 2018. Precisely, it is the demand that never faded over years. That is because corruption is a major component of all other problems in Iraq, such as electricity, water, poverty, unemployment, infrastructure deficiency and low standard of living.
In October 2019 uprising, protesters called for abolishing sectarian quotas system, for being the main cause for corruption in Iraq, according to which, government executive positions as well as economic activities are granted to political groups, which made political and economic activities exclusive for specific groups and individuals, and not open for the public.
Despite the country’s oil wealth, Iraqi official estimates of 2022 point out that poverty index ranges from 22 to 25 percent, and that employment has reached 16.5 percent. Under those figures, southern Iraqi provinces are suffering miserable life conditions. For instance, Basra province oil production represents 65 percent of the entire country’s revenues, but this does not reflect by anyway on living conditions there. The province lives in poverty and lack of services. Moreover, oil companies there do not offer jobs for locals, which has increased the unemployment rate.
Current Scene in the South: As the third anniversary of the October 2019 uprising approaches, southern Iraq still suffers from the same problems that have been causing people to demonstrate since 2018. For instance, on 9 August, angry crowds in south province of Basra cut roads as protest over power outage when temperature reached 50 degrees C. Demonstrations were not limited to Basra, rather extended to Maysan and Baghdad, still against the deterioration of electricity sector and the repeated failure in securing the increasing electricity needs in high temperature days.
Parallel to reconvening the parliament after a two-month halt, demonstrations sparked in a number of southern areas, protesting against the session, quotas and consensual governments.
Southern demonstrations started taking a violent dimension. In the past, it used to be skirmishes between protesters and security forces. Recently, clashes have been witnessed parallel to the intensifying political tension, which adds new security complications to those areas.
On 1 September, in Basra province, deadly clashes sparked between Saraya El-Salam the military arm of the Sadrist Movement and Assaeb Ahl-Elhaq a faction of Al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī) or the Popular Mobilization Forces PMF, leaving four militants dead. The atmosphere inside the province became full of vigilance and alertness about any further clashes.
A new form of escalation has taken place when militants from Assaeb marched around presidential palaces in Basra, showing off their weapons, which necessitated a response from Saraya El-Salam were hundreds of their elements wandered around the city roads exposing their weapons until late in the night on 29 September. Saraya El-Salam announced that their parade has been organized with the security authorities, and that it was based on intelligence about the intension of “armed militias” to carry out violent actions in Basra on the occasion of the October uprising anniversary, and that their marching was a warning to those militias.
The current state of rivalry within the Shiite community adds a new crisis to the south ongoing crises. This confrontation which is not limited to the Green Area in Baghdad, added a new burden on the shoulders of the people of the south.
Finally, the scene in the south is not apart from the overall political and economic picture of Iraq. However, people in the south suffer from consequences of those crises excessively and directly since years. That made them unable to bear anymore deteriorated conditions, thus, a near future pacification cannot be foreseen.
Even if the main players were able to reach compromise, form a government, and impose pacification on intra-Shiite confrontation, which may result in calming protests in Baghdad, it is not expected that this peace extends to the south. The suffering of the south is much more than a political conflict. Their electricity crisis is prolonged and has been ongoing for the past three decades without resolution. In addition, drought and water shortage are problems that are caused by outside parties who are willing to satisfy their domestic needs without paying attention to the basic needs of the Iraqi people.
In case the situation remains unchanged, basic services are not provided; political deadlock and Shiite groups confrontations resume, peace in southern Iraq cannot be anticipated.