Beginning on July 8th, large protests erupted in the Republic of Iraq, originating in the country’s mostly Shia south. After a decade and a half of conflict, one might expect that it would be the country’s large Sunni minority, whose large towns and cities have been destroyed in the fight against ISIS (some, like Fallujah, for a second time after facing bombardment during the 2003 Iraq War), taking to the streets. Instead, the seemingly leaderless movement began in Iraq’s 3rd largest city, Basra, in the majority Shia southern governorate (similar to a state in the U.S.) of the same name, whose fields produce over 70% of the country’s oil.
Basra, which suffered mightily under Saddam Hussein, has not done much better under a government dominated by their co-religionists either, with central government corruption eating up most of the money that might be spent on infrastructure or social programs in a city once famous for its Venice-like canals, which are “now are lined with trash and exude a miasma tinged with the scent of sewage.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest Shia religious authority, has publicly backed the demonstrators, reportedly saying, “Basra is number one in providing the country with financial revenue … So it is not fair, indeed it is not acceptable, that this governorate is one of Iraq’s poorest.”
Showing that what began in Basra was not an isolated phenomenon, the protests have since spread to other cities and towns, mainly in Shia areas in the south and center of the country, including Karbala, Najaf, Maysan, and Dhi Qar.
Reporting from Basra, Karzan Sulaivany of Kurdistan24 spoke with some of the Basran protesters, who didn’t give their names, likely fearing reprisals, whether from security forces or militias, most of the latter backed by neighboring Iran. These fears are legitimate, with at least 11 killed so far, some by authorities others by these militias, which have at times been confronted by demonstrators with tragic results.
As one of the protesters explained to Kurdistan 24’s Sulaivany in the article cited above, “We are here calling for our rights; we are calling on [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi to meet our demands; we are calling for basic services (electricity, water); come kill us, we want our rights!”
The demonstrations may be even angrier as they are taking place against the backdrop of an intense heatwave, with temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius (120 F) in Basra and most of southern Iraq. Part of the reason for the spontaneous uprising may also be that neighboring Iran has cut off supplies of electricity because Baghdad hasn’t been paying its bill, making air conditioning useless, even for the few who can afford it.
Some in the country see a sinister hand in the inability of the government to pay its bill to the Islamic Republic, as Iraqi politician Raheem al-Darajji told Al Jazeera, “I personally believe that there is some sort of pressure being orchestrated by the US government on the authorities in Iraq not to pay Iran for electricity.”
Regardless of foreign meddling, the whole country also faces an acute water shortage due to a drought exacerbated by the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, by neighbors Iran and Turkey.
As we might expect, Iraqi authorities have tried to quell the protests that, along with unemployment and lack of services, to some degree target the patronage networks that have enriched the country’s politicians while leaving most Iraqi citizens of all sects poor. There is also some truth to this statement in regards to stirrings in the Kurdish north, which charted a different course from Baghdad until recently but has basically been under the thumb of two corrupt political parties the whole time.
The central government in the capital, which has also begun to see related protests, has attempted to stop them in a variety of ways, from violently assaulting demonstrators or those suspected of being such on the streets to shutting down the internet. Besides the deaths, hundreds more Iraqis have been injured and arrested.
Especially troubling are attacks on those clearly identifiable as journalists.
As explained by Sophie Anmuth of Reporters without Borders (referred to by its French acronym RSF), “All of the incidents registered by RSF since the start of this wave of protests point to a clear desire by the Iraqi authorities to obstruct journalists’ work. Instead of arresting, threatening and even attacking journalists, the government must guarantee their safety and allow them to freely exercise the right to inform.”
Sectarian, tribal and ethnic tensions have been stoked by outsiders for almost two decades now, from the United States and other Western countries, who tried to navigate them clumsily with often deadly results, to Iran and the wealthy Sunni Gulf monarchies who have been more successful and at the same time have arguablydone more damage to the country’s civil society over the longer term.
Looking at the country’s recent history, it appears that Iraq has developed the worst qualities of representative democracy with few of the benefits this form of government usually brings for ordinary citizens.
In another sign of widespread discontent, Iraqis of all faiths and ethnicities stayed away from the polls in elections held on May 12th, with only 44% percent of voters participating.
Those that did vote mainly did so along sectarian lines, with one qualified exception that may bode well for the country’s future. In something of a surprise, the Sairun alliance, backed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a popular Shia religious figure and self-proclaimed nationalist critical of both the U.S. and Iran, which included secular Sunni Parties and the Iraqi Communist Party, took the majority of the vote. Obviously not expecting such a victory, Sadr, the son of a famous Iraqi ayatollah killed by Saddam Hussein, didn’t even run for the office of Prime Minister but will certainly play the role of king-maker.
Sadr’s name will evoke some anger in veterans of the war in Iraq because, on and off from 2003 until the American withdrawal in 2011, Sadr’s Mahdi army fought them and their allies on the streets of Baghdad and in the south of the country. There is little doubt in my mind that most Iraqis were happy to see Saddam Hussein toppled, but, once it became clear that foreign soldiers weren’t going to leave anytime soon, resistance was inevitable, more so after the existing Iraqi army was summarily dismissed.
With this in mind, it was interesting to read a rather hopeful article in Foreign Policy Magazine by Michael D. Sullivan, a serving colonel in the U.S. Army, addressing the concerns of many of his comrades in arms worried by Sadr’s political rise, “I understand their fears because I once shared the same concerns. However, having been in Iraq for multiple combat tours and during last month’s parliamentary election, I now have a much more positive view of the country than I ever would have imagined. The Sadr I witnessed leading his Sairun alliance in the 2018 election, while not pro-American, was both pro-Iraqi and anti-Iranian. This is a huge shift from 2004.”
At the same time, after recounting the votes from the May parliamentary election due to widespread allegations of fraud and the usual political horse-trading among the various parties and alliances, Sadr’s bloc made deals with both current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his mainly Shia Victory Alliance and the Iranian backed Fateh Party led by Hadi al-Amiri, meaning we will have to wait and see if the Sairun alliance will live up to its promises to work for all Iraqis regardless of their faith.
While the rise of Sairun does seem to be a good thing, Iraq has for too long been controlled by a small number of powerful men (and they are always men). What the recent protests show is that when mobilized, Iraqis are unstoppable. If sectarian tensions can be alleviated and different groups can be convinced not to seek revenge but rather some form of restorative justice for the wrongs of the past, the country can once again take its rightful place as one of the great cultural centers of the Near East.
Few countries have suffered as much in recent years and Iraqis of all faiths and ethnicities deserve not just freedom from the horrific violence that has become far too normal there but, in time, a return to the prosperity that the land between the two rivers has been known for throughout most of its history.