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How violent protests in Iraq could escalate

A protester in front of the burning Iranian Consulate in Basra, Iraq, on Sept. 7. (Essam al-Sudani/Reuters)
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In scenes that appeared to mirror the explosion of protests across southern Iraq in July, government headquarters and the offices of many of Iraq’s most powerful political parties and militias have been attacked and set ablaze by protesters in the oil-rich southern province of Basra. The Iranian Consulate in Basra was ransacked and burned Friday. As a fractured Shiite Islamist bloc continues to wrangle over power months after national elections in May, its core constituency in the Shiite south is in open revolt.

I’ve been monitoring protest activity and other security incidents in the region for the past year, mapping the ebbs and flows of civil unrest that have become a systemic feature of Iraq’s dysfunctional politics. This time, however, protests have been more Basra-centric. In contrast to what occurred in July, there have been only small and sporadic protests in nearby provinces.

Within Basra, however, things are even more chaotic than before. During the most intense two-week period of unrest in July, I recorded 46 protest incidents in Basra province, 15 of which were in the city of Basra. By contrast, in the first week of September alone, there have been 75 protests across the province, with 43 of these occurring in the provincial capital. This is an alarming pattern of escalating civil disorder.

Moreover, protesters have hit a wider range of targets this time. Within the city, demonstrations occurred at about 30 locations. Added to this have been protests across the wider province: in smaller towns lying along the main highway to Baghdad and at energy-sector facilities, the port of Umm Qasr, and border crossings. Iraqi security forces are struggling to contain the broad spectrum of unrest.

What lies behind the latest unrest?

The spark for the current protests was a health crisis in Basra. Contaminated drinking water led to a cholera outbreak and the subsequent hospitalization of an estimated 14,000 to 17,500 Basrawis. But protesters have made it clear that their grievances include a range of issue, from basic services to jobs and corruption.

In fact, several interconnected crises are driving unrest. The war against the Islamic State militant group has led to a contraction of the non-oil sector of the Iraqi economy since 2014 (21.6 percent, according to World Bank figures). This, combined with falling oil prices, undermined the heavily state-dependent labor market.

Some estimates have put the unemployment rate in Basra at 30 percent. This has particularly affected youths in the province, many of whom are university graduates and accuse the government of failing to provide jobs. Responding to demonstrations in July, the government promised to create 10,000 new jobs in Basra. Within a week of the announcement, officials had received 60,000 applications for the promised positions. Officials said they expected the final total to reach half a million.

Added to this has been resource scarcity, particularly water and electricity shortages, which fuel discontent while exacerbating Basra’s entrenched tribal feuding. Tribal fighting further erodes security, allowing other forms of criminal violence to flourish. All these factors have been exacerbated by the corruption and incompetence of local and federal authorities and the administrative confusion that reigns between the two.

The targeting of the Iranian Consulate also reflects localized grievances. In recent months, Iran cut off its supply of electricity to Iraq, and Iran’s damming of the Tigris River contributes to the water shortages afflicting the province. While some see the hand of the United States or Saudi Arabia behind the ransacking of the consulate, there are plenty of genuine reasons for locals to be angry with their neighbor to the east.

Violence could escalate

Tensions in Basra could escalate, drawing militias, tribes and security forces into a three-way confrontation. Attacks on offices belonging to some of Iraq’s most notorious militias have provoked ominous statements by these groups pointing to supposed “infiltrators” and a U.S.-Saudi plot directing the protests. A high school student from Basra was fatally shot Saturday while protesting outside one of the group’s offices in the city. The militias appear to be prepared to deploy their forces to the province’s streets in response and use violence to repress demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Basra’s powerful tribes have threatened to take up arms to resist and defend their people if protests continue to be met with excessive force. In one case, video emerged of a crowd of young men from the Banu Kab tribe declaring their willingness to die for their cause. This followed the killing of a tribesman, Makki Yassir al-Kaabi, at the hands of security forces while protesting near the provincial capital building on Sept. 3.

For many months, Basra has been plagued by intertribal rivalries, and local security forces have often been powerless to intervene. Now, their heavy-handed treatment of protesters risks provoking the tribes to turn their copious arsenals (which include ubiquitous AK-47s, PKM machine guns, RPGs, grenades and mortars) on the security forces themselves.

No unified movement

This situation is not a “major uprising” or a “revolution” against the political system. This is not a single social movement guided by a clear political agenda. It’s a chaotic mixture of loosely connected groups with different grievances, motivations and goals.

In some cases, these protests have a transactional character, a tried-and-tested method of extracting concessions by disrupting the oil economy, which provides the lifeblood of Iraqi politics. But they also express the anger of marginalized youths cut out of opportunity by a clientelist political economy. There are also local forms of civic organization that try to provide structure and coherence, to channel grievances and chaos into something more resembling a social movement. However, without allies in the political class, it is not clear how this systemic unrest can be transformed into a positive movement for change.

Benedict Robin-D’Cruz is a researcher on Iraqi politics, currently based at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.