Iraq’s southern province of Basra has been rocked by protests throughout July over Baghdad’s practice of bleeding the province for oil revenue. Although many of the demonstrators have now returned home, the root causes of unrest remain unsolved—and could spell broader trouble for Iraq as the United States and Iran jockey for influence.
The protests began in early July when an intense heat wave struck southern Iraq, driving up demand for electricity and water. The utilities, already debilitated by years of war and neglect, collapsed under the strain. Shortages were exacerbated by Iran’s decision to squeeze Baghdad for outstanding debt by withholding critical electricity exports.
In Basra province, frustrated protesters took to the streets, trashing government and local militia offices. The protests quickly spread to nearby provinces and then to Baghdad. Among the protesters’ demands: an end to government corruption, reliable public utilities like water and electricity, and greater investment in job-placement programs. Despite sitting atop some of the largest oil reserves in Iraq, Basra is home to some of the direst poverty and unemployment in the country.
In response to the protests, an emergency response committee chaired by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to expedite the release of government revenue to local infrastructure projects, and to increase the flow of water from the Tigris River. Iraqi security forces responded to the unrest with tear gas, and in many cases, live ammunition. Human Rights Watch released a report documenting “apparent excessive and unnecessary lethal force” against protesters in Basra.
“Security forces along with members of the Badr Organization, part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, fired on protesters at six of the eight protests investigated,” the report stated.
The protests come at a critical moment for Iraq. In May, populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s coalition won a surprise victory in the country's parliamentary elections over al-Abadi, a longtime U.S. ally, and the Iran-backed candidate Hadi al-Ameri. Al-Sadr is well-known for his blend of religious populism, grassroots activism, and opposition to foreign intervention—from Washington or Tehran.
“Loathsome as [al-Sadr] is from the American perspective because of the attacks on the United States during the occupation ... he is not the most sectarian of the politicians by any means,” said Daniel Serwer, director of conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Al-Sadr has called for a suspension of the talks until the protesters’ demands are met. He has not, however, chosen to take the lead. In the past, al-Sadr would more or less “come and take over the protests,” unleashing his supporters onto the streets when it was politically advantageous, said Renad Mansour, a scholar at Chatham House.
“Today, he doesn’t seem like he wants to engage,” Mansour added.
This poses a problem for American and Iranian officials, who are forced to tread water until a new government is formed. Experts expressed skepticism that al-Sadr will choose to sacrifice his leverage as an opposition figure and join the governing coalition.
“He can either decide to go back into opposition, or … to negotiate with the parties to form a government,” said Joost Hiltermann, MENA program director at the International Crisis Group. “But then basically, you get yourself into the muck.”
The muck, experts say, is Iraq’s pervasive corruption. “Iraq is a place that, in theory, has all the resources it needs to support a pretty decent lifestyle on the part of most of its citizens,” Serwer said. “The problem is that a lot of the money disappears into corruption.”
Iraq ranked 166 out 176 countries on Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index.
Washington's reaction to the ongoing protests has been muted. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the Iraqi government intends to “address protesters’ grievances,” but that the protests were “an internal Iraqi matter.”
An official from the U.S. Agency for International Development said the U.S. “regret[s] the lives lost among both protesters and the security forces” and that the U.S. is ready to support efforts “to reform the economy, fight corruption, and create the jobs and provide the services that the Iraqi people deserve."
USAID currently runs an office in Iraq, known as Taqadum, which aims to improve provincial-level service delivery. The office could not immediately be reached for comment.
With demographic changes only expected to increase the strain on utilities in Iraq, several experts called on the U.S. to focus on curbing rampant cronyism rather than dumping more money into reconstruction.
“The international community should ... play a role in controlling the movement of illicit funds from inside Iraq to outside Iraq,” said Zaid Al-Ali, a scholar at International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports democratic institutional reform.
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has spent millions on property in Virginia, al-Ali pointed out, and the Panama Papers leak revealed that former Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi used several offshore companies to purchase property in the United Kingdom.
“The problem in Iraq isn’t one of having enough money, or having enough people to be involved,” al-Ali said. “The problem is that the people who are ultimately in control today of the government aren’t interested.”