Democracy Dies in Darkness

Middle East

Deadly protests rage in Iraq over lack of services as political transition deadlocks

September 5, 2018 at 7:00 PM

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Protesters burned tires in front of a local council building in Basra, Iraq, on Sept. 5, a day after at least six people were killed in clashes with security forces. (Zubayr City Channel via Storyful)

BAGHDAD —Iraqi authorities braced for a fresh round of violent protests Wednesday after security forces killed six demonstrators in two days during angry marches in the southern city of Basra over government corruption and a lack of basic services.

The spasm of violence has brought calls for solidarity protests throughout the country, as activists seek to revive a ­campaign that began in early July over spotty electricity, undrinkable water, unemployment and ­frustrations with a political system that has failed to name a new government nearly four months after national elections.

The halting political transition has drawn the United States and Iran further into the unpredictable horse-trading that has prevented any clear winner from emerging, paralyzing parliament just a day after it convened for the first time on Monday.

By Wednesday night, demonstrators massed in Basra had torched a municipal office building and police had responded with warning shots in an attempt to disperse the crowd. There were no immediate reports of injuries. Demonstrators in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square avoided the kind of confrontation that led police to use deadly force earlier in the week. Activists said they expect the number of protests to surge on Friday, the first day of the weekend.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seeking a second term in office with Washington’s backing, ordered an investigation into the death of a protester who was apparently killed by live fire late Monday in Basra.

Protesters try to storm the governor's building during protests demanding better public services and jobs, Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in Basra in southern Iraq. (Nabil al-Jurani/AP)

He also told security forces to protect and facilitate peaceful demonstrations and urged protesters to refrain from provoking authorities and damaging government property.

That did not deter renewed demonstrations Tuesday, when protesters hurled stones and molotov cocktails at government buildings, drawing warning shots and tear gas from security forces.

Local health officials in Basra, the largest city in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland, said five demonstrators were killed Tuesday night and nearly two dozen were injured. A security official told Iraq’s state television that 22 members of security forces were also injured.

Calm was restored in the early hours of Wednesday after local officials imposed a curfew, but the images of bloodied protesters drew angry condemnation from activists and some politicians.

The U.N. special representative for Iraq, Jan Kubis, said he was gravely concerned over the deaths in Basra and urged authorities “to avoid using disproportionate, lethal force against the demonstrators” and to “provide the necessary protection for the people of Basra.” Kubis also appealed to Iraq’s newly elected lawmakers to set aside differences and quickly work toward forming a new government.

“Long-term stability and improved economic performance go hand-in-hand, and tackling these challenges rests with the political leaders uniting and working together in the national interest,” he said in a statement.

Related: [Street protests in Iraq could cost pro-American prime minister his job]

Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric whose ticket won the most seats in May’s elections and enjoys widespread support in Basra, said in a tweet that the demonstrators were demanding only “to live with dignity.” He stopped short of condemning the security forces’ use of live ammunition.

In early July, residents of Basra and other Shiite-majority cities in the south began protesting frequent blackouts and the undrinkable salty water that flows from faucets in the oil-rich region. The demonstrations morphed into a sweeping campaign against local and federal officials, whom the protesters blame for endemic corruption and mismanagement that has made Basra decrepit, even though the area produces most of Iraq’s oil.

Tensions were heightened this week when Iraq’s parliament convened for the first time Monday following a lengthy recount of May’s ballots amid accusations of fraud. Two blocs claimed a majority of seats, leading to a deadlock and failure to elect a speaker, as mandated by the constitution.

On Tuesday, the interim speaker of the parliament appealed to the Federal Supreme Court to settle the dispute and postponed the next parliamentary session for at least 10 days.

Iraq’s fractured political scene and fierce regional rivalries have typically delayed by many months the formation of its governments since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Both the United States and Iran have a major stake in the outcome of the dispute, with Washington holding the weaker hand.

Abadi has entered a coalition with Sadr, a fierce critic of the United States who emerged in 2004 as the dominant symbol of resistance to the U.S.-led invasion. While his active opposition to American forces has diminished, his soaring criticism has not. Sadr has also opposed Tehran’s influence in Iraq but maintains cordial ties with Iranian religious and political leaders.

Abadi and Sadr claim to have the necessary backing of the majority of lawmakers to form the next government, in which Abadi could retain his post despite performing poorly in May’s elections.

Brett McGurk, a White House envoy, has been in Iraq to urge minority Sunni and Kurdish blocs to back Abadi, drawing the ire of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and a pro-Iran ticket led by Shiite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri.

Amiri and Maliki have also claimed they hold a legislative majority after peeling away members of Abadi’s ticket. The most significant defection has been Falih al-Fayyadh, whom Abadi dismissed last week as his national security adviser and head of the powerful umbrella group that governs Iraq’s armed militias.

Amiri angrily accused McGurk of seeking to dictate the formation of Iraq’s next government, which will be tasked with managing a massive rebuilding effort after a costly three-year war against the Islamic State and trying to revive Iraq’s stagnant economy.

The next government will also have to strike a balance between receiving much-needed American security support aimed at preventing another extremist insurgency and maintaining vital trade with Iran. The Trump administration has sought to isolate Tehran internationally through renewed sanctions — the effects of which have been felt by ordinary Iraqis.

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Related: How Moqtada al-Sadr went from anti-American outlaw to kingmaker in Iraq

Related: Public enemy or savior? An Iraqi city could reveal the true Moqtada al-Sadr

Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Tamer El-Ghobashy is The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief. Before joining The Post in 2017, he covered the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal, focusing on North Africa and Iraq.

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