Production has been halted at Iraq’s Nassiriya Oil Refinery, where dozens of protesters have congregated at the entrance for five days in a row. Demanding jobs, they show little sign of letting up.
According to Reuters, the demonstrators are made up of over 200 unemployed university graduates, who staged a demonstration every day for the past several weeks and only now have blocked the entrance in response to a disappointing budget bill which did not adequately address Iraq’s rampant unemployment. For now, the protest has reportedly caused fuel shortages across the province of Dhi Qar, and the refinery’s capacity of 30,000 barrels of oil per day has ground to a halt.
Protests of this nature are nothing new in Iraq, tracing their lineage back to the U.S. invasion in 2003. The government which the occupying Americans set up never won the hearts of its people, and the period was characterized by violence, both by western forces and by various sectarian groups, including ISIS. Despite its vast oil reserves, the Iraqi economy has never taken off―at least not for the underclasses, for whom unemployment and lack of access to things like clean water are pressing issues.
In 2019, frustration with Iraq’s leadership, perceived as corrupt and only serving the elites of all sects, boiled over into violent clashes. During one particularly large protest in Baghdad, demonstrators attempted to enter the Green Zone, the center of government in Iraq, only for security forces to open fire, killing 50, as BBC reports. Several hundred protesters died during this first wave of demonstrations in October, and several hundred more during a later second wave.
Importantly, the protesters represent what the BBC called “a cross section of Iraqi society.” Although mostly under the age of 30, both disillusioned Sunnis and Shias were well-represented in this movement, in an era of Iraqi history characterized largely by sectarian violence.
The protesters did not have all their demands met, and marches have continued sporadically since October 2019. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi stepped down in May 2020, and his successor promised investigations, but no one has been prosecuted yet, according to Arab Weekly. Economic conditions have not changed much. Demonstrators are looking at more of the same.
The current shutdown of the Nassiriya Oil Refinery is part of this line of protests, albeit a less violent one (for now). Perhaps it marks a shift on the demonstrators’ part towards a new strategy, targeting the heart of the issue―Iraq’s unevenly distributed oil wealth―instead of staging simple marches.
Iraq is still healing from the wounds of 2003 and the intense sectarian violence before and after. The cross-sect solidarity shown in the past several years in an encouraging sign without a doubt, but more reckoning must take place.
As a basic measure, the UN’s recommendation of “investigations into killings of protesters, declarations of assets by politicians, corruption trials, electoral reform and constitutional changes” should be undertaken if Iraq’s government seeks to keep its precarious hold on the country. But the redistribution of wealth, as it often is, is at the heart of the unrest. More blockages may ensue if the demonstrators’ demands are not met, and perhaps more violence will follow.
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