Iraqi protesters gather at the burnt-down local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra on September 7, 2018 during demonstrations over poor public services. Photo: Haidar Mohammed Ali | AFP
Thousands of people came to the streets in Basra again to rise against corrupt politicians, weak government, electricity shortages, undrinkable water, and unemployment for young people. However, the recent demonstration is different from previous ones, as this time they spread to other cities and reached to the Iraqi capital.
Electricity shortages were one of the main reasons provoking the protestors; Iran cut off the electricity it exports to Iraq, as they claimed that Iraqi government is a debtor and are overdue. This came as Iran faces an economic crisis following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Tehran’s situation is expected to deteriorate when oil sanctions hit. At the start of the demonstration, Iraq’s electricity minister claimed Baghdad could pay its debts to Iran; however, the central bank cannot send millions in US dollars because of the sanctions.
Surely Iraq will suffer due to tensions between the United States and Iran. Washington wants Baghdad to abide by its sanctions on Iran, especially November's, and Iran also wants to remain in Iraq as a superpower which will be difficult because of Muqtada al-Sadr's success and influence. While the demonstrations could be a chance for governmental reform they could also be a threat.
Demonstrations in Basra are not new. Basra is the economic capital of Iraq because of its oil. In public forums and especially in election campaigns, politicians promised the people of Basra better conditions, but in reality all cabinets in the “new Iraq” have prioritized Iranian interests.
The terminology of reform has become a business for Iraqi politicians, when in fact the tension between political parties and having them all participate in the government is a big obstacle for reform because of the lack of a consensus. It is worthwhile to point out that people who live in Basra are Shiite because it demonstrates that even Shiites no longer believe in their own politicians. Burning portraits of Khomeini and torching the Iranian consulate mean people no longer want Iran’s intervention in Iraq. Iraqi people want their sovereignty, even willing to sacrifice basic services and services temporarily.
People burned many offices of Shiite parties and also government’s office but they didn’t attack Muqtada al-Sadr’s office. That was not because the guards protected his office — other parties have more guards and militias to protect their offices — the reality is people believe Sadr is one of them, a champion of the poor fighting the weak government for reform and providing basic needs.
Of Iraqi revenues, 89 percent comes from oil and 80 percent of oil comes from Basra. After three years of the government solely focusing on winning the ISIS conflict, a big security vacuum was left in provinces like Basra, allowing for mafias and powerful tribes to take advantage of the situation and run amuck. The people of Basra could not shoulder that burden forever and it eventually boiled over.
Iraqi politicians have to prevent demonstrations by providing people with their daily needs. The new government faces a big task when formed, because people expect a technocrat government and they want their sovereignty without intervention by neighboring countries. If the new government doesn’t address people’s demands, Iraq’s situation will worsen into further instability.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.