Protests In Iraq Take A Violent Turn And The Government Retaliates

Last week, multiple demonstrations took place in parts of Southern Iraq including Basra, Karbala, and Najaf. Corruption, high unemployment, and lack of efficient social services, including access to water, have unleashed the unrest, according to the Middle East Eye. The protests took a violent turn when civilians broke into government buildings and Najaf International airport and attempted to burn down offices of politicians, according to Al-Jazeera. In Basra, thousands of protesters blocked the main roads to major oil fields, according to ABC news. The government has declared a state of emergency, blocking social media and partially shutting down the internet in the country. 

The security forces have used tear gas and water to combat protesters, killing 7 people as July 15th. According to Reuters, Prime Minister and Commander in Chief Haider al-Abadi recently stated on national TV that the  government will “release funds to Basra for water, electricity and health services.” In addition, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that al-Abadi is promising future economic growth through increasing numbers of available jobs, and ordering 3.5 trillion dinars ($2.94 billion)  as a disbursement for the people of Basra.

On the other hand, he has also increased security alerts in the areas where demonstrations are held. The protests have called for the collapse of the Dawa ruling party, which al-Abadi serves as the current head. Religious leader and Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has stood beside the protesters stating that their demands are valid. “It is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable areas in Iraq,” his representative explained on Twitter. According to Al-Jazeera, the demonstrations also mark a rare instance in which the protesters, who are Shi’ite, are condemning the government along with powerful militia leaders from their own religious sector. This is considered to be a significant moment in a country where religious division and sectarianism run deep.

The protests came at a time of massive unemployment. Iraq, as a country, has gone through significant political turmoil and regime change and foreign occupation is only part of the complex conflict. The political turmoil, in turn, destroyed the country economically and politically. Recent statistics have shown at least 10.8 percent of Iraqis are unemployed, Al-Jazeera reports. Al-Jazeera also reported that the youth are hurt the most by these economic conditions, as unemployment is twice as high for that particular age group which represents over 60% of the population. In particular, Southern Iraq has been historically affected more than other regions in country due to Saddam’s Hussein’s intentional neglection of the Shi’ite majority states.  

The extreme heat temperatures in the region have become a major issue and are suspected to have fueled concerns which have been brewing ever since al-Abadi took office in 2014. Temperatures in Busra, where the protests started, have peaked in the last week, exceeding 48 degrees Celsius, CNN reports. People’s grievances regarding corruption during the brutal weather triggered protests regarding government inefficiency. According to Al-Jazeera, issues like constant lack of electricity and other social services demonstrate the general underdevelopment of the province – even though Busra is one of the most oil-rich provinces. Even though the country is supposed to be on its path towards development, the government has not improved the living conditions. Al-Jazeera also reports that although the oil sector presents 99 percent of Iraq’s export revenues, oil production revenues have not trickled down to the working population. For instance, only one percent of jobs in the industry are filled by Iraqis, the rest is occupied by foreigners.

The Iraqi government’s lack of action  has only expanded criticism against Abidi and the Dawa party, which has dominated Iraq’s politics for the last 15 years. Recent elections on May 15th promised a possible change in the country’s government as Muqtada al-Sadr’s victory shocked many and eliminated some senior politicians. The truth remains, however, that corruption needs to be eradicated from the entire political system. It is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to provide services to its people. The will of Iraqi people to vote and demand a change is powerful. However, the protests’ descent into violence showcases a repressed frustration that will not disappear in the meantime. It is, therefore, urgent that the Iraqi government follows up on its promises and to stop its attempts to force its people back to silence.