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In Iraq, old grievances fuel deadly protests

Updated July 19, 2018

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IRAQI protesters hand over job requests to government employees in Basra on Wednesday.—Reuters
IRAQI protesters hand over job requests to government employees in Basra on Wednesday.—Reuters

BAGHDAD: In the heat of battle against the militant Islamic State group, Iraqis united against a common enemy.

But just a few months after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the jihadists, social grievances that once simmered on the back burner have boiled over in a series of protests that have spread to several cities.

After erupting in oil-rich Basra province on July 8, unrest has quickly spread, as people have vented their anger over unemployment, high prices, power cuts and a lack of usable water.

From Basra to the capital Baghdad, the question on people’s lips has been: “Where is the government?” That query is made all the more pertinent by the failure of May’s elections — thus far — to produce a new administration, as a record abstention rate highlighted Iraqis’ contempt for their political leaders.

Eight people have been killed during the demonstrations so far, multiple sources say, while there has been a brief internet blackout and the authorities claim over 260 security personnel have been wounded.

‘Explosion of rage’

The protests represent “an explosion of rage at an entire system that has brazenly robbed Iraqis of the chance for a better life,” says Iraq expert Fanar Haddad.

With the jihadists in retreat, “the failings of the Iraqi political classes in all aspects of governance and economic management come into sharper relief,” adds Haddad.

For more than a week protesters have taken to the streets, questioning how a country that is the second largest producer in the OPEC oil cartel can leave its 38 million citizens so bereft of basic services.

In some cases security forces have fired live rounds into the air to deter protesters who set fire to public property and political parties’ headquarters.

The authorities say troublemakers have turned peaceful protests violent.

In an effort to restore calm, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flew to Basra last week from Brussels, after a Nato meeting where the continued threat of IS was on the agenda.

The premier announced investments of $3 billion for Basra province and pledged additional spending on housing, schools and services.

And several cabinet members summoned powerful tribal chiefs in southern Iraq, urging them to use their clout to restore order in their provinces.

When Abadi was elected in 2014, the prime minister pledged to tackle endemic corruption and vowed to rid Iraq of the jihadists, who at that stage held a third of the country.

He has won plaudits for overseeing the war effort — but the battle against corruption will take time, his supporters say.

Iraq is ranked the 12th most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.

‘Cosmetic concessions’

The promises of investment for Basra will fail to satisfy the demonstrators who know Abadi may well not lead the next government, political analyst Hisham al-Hashemi says.

The elections placed the premier’s Victory Alliance third.

And while his bloc tentatively allied itself with nationalist cleric Moqtada Sadr in June, the combined forces would still take only 96 out of 329 parliamentary seats.

But despite the political chaos — two months after the elections, even the fragmented results are subject to a recount in some areas — Hashemi expects the protest movement to fizzle out.

“They don’t have a leadership, a political identity or media support [to further their] legitimate demands,” he says.

And alongside the offer of carrots, sticks are being deployed.

The authorities have ordered the arrest of dozens of activists who encouraged others to take to the streets by posting pictures of the protests online.

On Saturday, the internet was cut across the country, as demonstrations threatened to spread.

Authorities said the shutdown was due to maintenance work and Iraq was largely back online Monday.

But Iraqis were still unable to connect on social networks.

An end to the protests could lie in offering temporary solutions until political and meteorological temperates cool, Haddad says, noting that anger over public services has historically tended to boil over during the summer.

It is “likely that the Iraqi political classes will bunker down and wait for the storm to pass while offering cosmetic concessions and promises of reform,” he says.

But the problems facing the country are long-term ones “that require far more than Iraq’s self-interested political classes are likely to be able to offer”.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2018