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Protests in southern Iraq have entered the second week despite the government promising to work towards meeting the protestors’ demands. Starting in the oil-rich province of Basra and now spreading to several other cities, protestors have gathered demanding the government increase the quality of basic services and to address unemployment. According to Al Jazeera, the organized protests are peaceful but are faced with excessive security responses with at least eight people killed recently. None of the protestors trust the Iraqi politicians, so without visible improvements it is unlikely the demonstrations will cease. NPR reported that Iraq is facing an electricity crisis and power outages throughout southern Iraq, which helped spark the protests. Due to high levels of corruption in the Iraqi government, the citizens do not benefit from the oil exports and remain impoverished with less than subpar amenities from the government. Iraq has depended on Iran for electricity for years now, but because of the US sanctions on Iran, Tehran can no longer access the Iraqi payments.
Although all of Iraq has suffered from a lack of basic social services, southern Iraq has suffered the most in the past and in modern times. Despite the relatively recent democratization, Iraqi residents do not trust the government. “We believe that all promises are lies,” said Haider al-Helfi, a protest organizer in Basra. “We are demonstrating because of the deterioration in services, unemployment and bad water,” he said. “People want their rights.” Iraq has hired in outsiders to take the jobs the plethora of oil fields have created even though the local residents are either underemployed or unemployed. Murtadha Rahman, a Basra resident, joined the demonstrators, but ended up getting beaten by the police. “I live in a place which is rich with oil that brings billions of dollars while I work in collecting garbage to desperately feed my two kids. I want a simple job, that’s my only demand,” said Rahman, “I won’t go even if you kill me. I will stay here. I want a job.” The former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, claims that the US economic sanctions on Iran have also affected Iraq. “Electricity is just one impact [on Iraq] of the sanctions on the Iranians. You’ll see it elsewhere, not just in electricity, but in banking and other sectors. These are unintended consequences that [value] immediate gains at the cost of the long-term stability of Iraq.”
Iraq must respond to demonstrators with visible results to stop the potentially destabilizing protests. As seen in many Middle Eastern countries, excessive force against protestors has only resulted in negative media attention both internationally and domestically and has encouraged the demonstrations to grow in size and intensity. Additionally, the United States must understand the negative reverberating effects that their foreign policy has on entire regions and react accordingly to both ensure that human rights are respected and to maintain security interests in their political investments.
The southern regions of Iraq have historically suffered more than the rest of the country. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s, Basra and the other provinces received the highest concentration of missile barrages from Iranian forces, which devastated living conditions. Additionally, following the US pushing back Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the southern Iraqi’s demanded improved amenities, but instead were punished further for opposing the government. Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the United States has acted as a caretaker for the stability of the country. With the reinstated sanctions on Iran, the US is inadvertently destabilizing a country that they have spent billions of dollars and over a decade trying to fix.
Iraq has had a history of destabilization in the 20th and 21st century and corrupt governments stemming back to the 1970’s have reacted poorly to the grievances of the people. The citizens will not stop fighting for basic societal rights, such as clean water, access to employment, and electricity. Iraq is on thin ice and is surrounded by a plethora of fragile countries that could result in a downward spiral of the region.