People in the predominantly Shiite governorates in south and central Iraq took to the streets on July 10, 2018 to protest against power outages, poor services, deteriorating living conditions, rampant unemployment and corruption. Protests began in Basra – ironically the source of most of the country’s wealth – and later spread to the other southern governorates (such as Dhi Qar, Al-Muthanna, Maysan, Al-Najaf, Karbala and Babel) and the capital Baghdad.
Protesters expressed their anger at the domination of (Shiite) religious parties by storming and burning their headquarters (such as the Al-Da’wah Party, Badr Organization and Al-Asa’ib Movement). The protesters also stormed state interests and institutions such as Al-Najaf International Airport, oil companies and governate headquarters.
Political parties did not participate in these spontaneous protests, which were initiated by civil activists and tribal leaders. Although local coordination committees were formed, the protests lacked central leadership, which complicated the Iraqi government’s efforts to diffuse them.
Government measures to contain the protests
The Iraqi government sensed the danger of these protests and sought to contain them through:
These measures failed to stop the protests, although they did lead to a decline in their intensity, while some local coordination committees agreed to a truce for the government to meet their demands.
Factors perpetuating the crisis
The following factors motivated the outbreak of protests in southern Iraq:
1. Power crisis
On July 4, 2018, Iran terminated its 1,200-megawatt supply of electricity to Iraq. A spokesperson for the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, Musab Al-Mudaris, said: “This cut-off is due to the accumulation of debt owed by Iraq for importing Iranian electricity.” The Iraqi government on June 25, 2018 dispatched a delegation from the Iraqi Central Bank to Tehran to reach an understanding concerning the settlement of the debt. Baghdad refused to pay in US dollars due to restrictions imposed by the US Treasury. The Iranian Central Bank also refused to be paid in local currency because the contracts were in US dollars. In addition, Iraq has not officially signed an agreement for trade exchange in local currencies.
Tehran chose to escalate the situation by cutting off electricity supplies despite “appeals by the Iraqi government not to cut off.” The Iranian decision coincided with an increase in temperature during the summer. On July 13, 2018, Baghdad dispatched a delegation led by Minister of Electricity Qasim Al-Fahdawi to try, in vain, to solve the problem.
It is worth noting that Iraq suffers from a 10,000 MW deficit in electricity supply. The Iraqi oil minister has estimated the country’s electricity needs at 21,000 megawatts, while the country produces 10,000–11,000 MW, 54% of which is wasted due to the poor quality of transmission infrastructure. Iraq imports 1,200 MW from Iran and 450 MW from Turkish power ships in the Gulf.
2. Water crisis
Iraq was shocked by Turkey’s announcement of the beginning of operations at the Iliso dam in the south, which threatens to decrease the rate of flow in the Tigris by 50% for at least three years. This crisis provoked a huge public reaction and raised concerns regarding the future of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, especially with Iran’s plans for a number of dams on the Tigris’ tributaries and the construction of the Karun dam which has cut off the flow of the Karun river in Iran towards the Shatt Al-Arab, increasing its salinity.
Basra, and to a lesser degree Al-Amarah and Al-Nasiriyah, suffer from high salinity in the rivers and the Shatt Al-Arab. This problem has been exacerbated by growing water scarcity. It has also triggered despair among local people concerning the implementation of water desalination projects. The exacerbation of the water problem also threatens agriculture, on which the economy of Basra and most of southern Iraq depends.
The Iraqi government ordered farmers to stop planting certain crops they had cultivated historically owing to their high water needs – such as Anbar rice and a number of other crops.
People in southern Iraq also felt that the government was weak in dealing with Iran and Turkey on the water issue, and that it had – along with the political parties – covered up the issue of the Iliso dam before information finally surfaced in June 2018.
3. The domination of the political process by religious parties
Nearly six months after the end of the conflict with ISIS, the Al-Ibadi government has made no progress in achieving economic development, nor has it been able to create jobs, improve public services, combat corruption or implement reforms. Apparently, these are the main issues that affect popular discourse.
The legislative elections were held on May 12, 2017 amid obvious popular frustration, particularly among the Shiite population. People viewed the electoral process as being incapable of bringing about real change in political life. This was clearly reflected in the low public participation in the elections, as some official sources estimated that voter turnout was less than 30% in Basra and other southern cities.
That bad feeling was intensified by the election results, as well as allegations of fraud and the political turmoil that ensued. People have become even more disillusioned with the possibility of achieving change through legitimate means and are outraged by the return of the same old forces to the political forefront. Al Sadr’s talk about the possibility of forming a cabinet in a different way gave hope to various elements of the Iraqi public – notably the Shiites. However, after reneging on this commitment, his talk once again returned to forming a government by quota and popular pessimism returned.
4. Iran and its influence
There is widespread argument that Iran supported Iraq’s latest protests to send a warning to Washington of the possible consequences of increased US sanctions on Tehran, and to show its ability to block oil supplies to the region. Also, it is believed that through these events Tehran seeks to caution anti-Iranian Iraqi Shiite forces against opposing Iran’s approach toward post-sanctions issues. Arguably, this has come as a result of the controversy between Tehran and Baghdad over the Iran Central Bank’s policies on local currencies.
However, other observers maintain that Iran is the party most affected by the protests in Iraqi cities with sizeable Shiite populations. The headquarters of pro-Iran parties and militias were set on fire, portraits of major Iranian figures such as Khomeini and Khamenei were torn up and set alight and anti-Iranian slogans were chanted. Moreover, the intervention of Iran-backed militias against protesters supports the argument that Tehran was not the mastermind of such events.
In any case, these protests have highlighted two major points: first, it is no longer possible to blame Iran or any other actors for the poor services and economic situation in Southern Iraq. Second, the support among Shiites for Shiite parties in general – and Iran-backed parties in particular – as well as Iran in general appears to have hit rock bottom.
There are two possible scenarios for the development of the protests:
1. A short-term decline in protests may occur should the clergy or tribal figures step in to pacify the protests, or if the demands of protesters are partially met. The protests have adversely affected Al-Ibadi’s chances of securing a second term in office, owing to widespread popular resentment concerning the security measures taken against protesters, which will certainly be exploited by Al-Ibadi’s Shiite political opponents. Of course, the decline in protests would affect negotiations on the formation of the new cabinet and probably accelerate the process after the results. Then, a Shiite consensus candidate may be nominated as cabinet head.
This scenario seems to be the most probable for a number of reasons. These include the lack of any clear leadership of the protests, the power of security services and Popular Mobilization Units to suppress these activities, the lack of political support, and the regional support the Iraqi state enjoys.
2. The protests evolve into a public uprising and lead to the collapse of both local government and central governments. Under such circumstances, the country would be forced to form a crisis government.
This scenario may materialize if the government proves incapable of meeting the demands of the protesters, and if the religious authorities continue their support for protests to an extent that becomes embarrassing for the security services, leaving them with one of two options: to continue their oppressive measures against the protesters or opt to support the demonstrations.
This scenario would result in public damage and looting, a general lack of security, and the emergence of multiple popular centers claiming leadership of the protests. However, it is hard to predict the needs of an emergency government in the absence of a legislative authority. The big question is: will such a government continue to undertake its duties until a new government is formed, or will it declare the suspension of the constitution or call an election, as some political forces hope? This would be contrary to the positions of the US and Iran, which support the prevailing political structure, and is unlikely if they are to act as observers of the constitutional procedures of forming a new government.
Finally, the protests are not the first of their kind and will not be the last, given the increased public resentment against Iraq’s political elite that has failed in virtually all aspects of governance, including state management and economic oversight. While Iraq’s development problems will take years to be effectively tackled, the current management of the country will eventually lead to the collapse of the post-2003 political system. This would have negative implications not only for Iraq but for neighbouring countries as well.
Hanin Ghaddar | 10 Oct 2021
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