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Protests are mounting in Iraq. Why?

Iraqis react to tear gas fired by Iraqi security forces during a demonstration against unemployment and a lack of basic services in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on July 20, 2018. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past week, protests and violence proliferated across Iraq’s southern provinces. In unprecedented scenes, buildings of provincial capitals were stormed, and the offices of political parties and militias were attacked and burned down.

These are Iraq’s Shiite heartlands that contributed most of the manpower to the fight against the Islamic State. The political elites who have dominated the post-2003 order have legitimized their rule by claiming to represent and advance the interest of this previously marginalized constituency.

And yet, in recent elections, these provinces recorded some of the lowest turnout. That political disengagement has now transformed into a new and more radical means of contesting political power. As demonstrators attacked the offices of Iraq’s most powerful militias, which subject ordinary Iraqis to intimidation and extortion, there were reports of militia gunmen firing on protesters with live rounds.

The rhetoric emerging from these groups has been equally disturbing. The potential for a violent conflagration involving protesters, state security forces and heavily armed militias looms large over the ongoing demonstrations.

Anger has been building for months

This explosion of protests in the south should not come as a surprise. I’ve monitored protest activity in the area over the past year and in that time there have been more than 260 separate protest events.

These have taken various forms. Some are frequent, highly localized and small-scale demonstrations with limited and often sector-specific demands. Others include large-scale demonstrations, sometimes involving thousands of protesters. From November 2017 through April, for example, there were angry, mass demonstrations opposing the prime minister’s reforms of the electricity sector, which were perceived as a privatization scheme that would drive up costs.

Tribal fighting, and violent criminality, have also become a major source of grievance. While focus has been drawn to the war on Islamic State, cities and towns in the south have witnessed regular gun battles in the streets involving feuding tribes and criminal gangs, often resulting in innocent bystanders being killed or injured.

In June, I noted record levels of violence and protest activity across the south. There was almost one demonstration occurring every day. I also recorded 22 tribal fighting incidents. The underlying factors driving these events are often connected. A typical case occurred June 9, when at least one man was killed when tribal fighting broke out in a small town in the southern province of Dhi Qar. The cause of fighting, a dispute over an electricity generator.

The failure to provide electricity during the extreme summer temperatures is yet another recurrent complaint of protesters. At the start of July, this problem was exacerbated further when Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq. The ensuing shortfall left many Iraqis with only a few hours or unreliable electricity supply a day.

By early July protesters in Basra, Iraq’s main oil-producing province, were targeting operations at key energy-sector facilities demanding jobs and improved services. It was following the killing of a protester, and the injuring of three others, only July 8 near Bahla in northern Basra that the rates and intensity of protests in the south exploded. The Bahla incident involved 800 to 1,000 demonstrators attempting to block the road to West Qurna 1 and Rumaila oil fields to the south.

No easy solutions

The political class now has a long history of broken promises on reform. Consequently, their statements designed to appease protesters lack credibility. Earlier this month, an announcement by the oil ministry that it would create 10,000 jobs in Basra was met with justified incredulity.

But there are no quick fixes available to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Nearly 60 percent of the population is under age 25. Iraq’s higher education system leaves most of this group poorly equipped for employment in the private sector. Yet the public sector has been squeezed in recent years by falling oil prices.

Meanwhile, many protesters are demanding jobs in the energy sector, which employs only 4 percent of the Iraqi workforce. Demonstrators have targeted foreign workers they accuse of displacing them. But many lack skills to take on anything but basic roles (as security guards and drivers).

Oil firms are also reluctant to hire and train the local population. They consider Basrawis troublesome and, fearing extortion by local employees and tribes, they try to avoid them as much as possible.

There is also a lack of capacity to deliver services demanded by demonstrators. At the heart of this problem lies the way decentralization of service delivery from the federal government to the provinces has been implemented. This process has been criticized as uneven, chaotic, and for generating confusion about where accountability for service provision lies. The provinces still lack capacity and means for revenue generation, leaving them dependent on the central government and inhibiting what they can achieve locally.

Dangerous times ahead

Abadi is rapidly running out of options. A piecemeal strategy involving the deployment of resources at strategic sites, buying off tribal opposition around energy-sector facilities, may buy governing elites some breathing space. But over the long view, the grievances driving these protests require tackling deeply embedded challenges afflicting Iraq’s social, economic and political systems.

The Washington Post has also reported in the past few days on the reemerging Islamic State insurgency in central and northern parts of the country. This threatens to drain political will and resources away from the festering problems in the south.

There also remains ambiguity surrounding the role of Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric. He is the only major political actor with motive and means to give the demonstrations the broader political organization that they lack. Yet, so far, Sadr has remained cautious, expressing support for protesters without throwing the full weight of his supporters into the streets. If this were to change, Iraq would be thrown into an even more dangerous predicament.

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz is a PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh working on Iraqi politics.