Sep 17, 2018
Since July 8, protests about the lack of water and electricity and against the corruption of the ruling politicians have rocked Basra, the main city in the oil-rich south of Iraq. The Iraqi army has responded with live ammunition, killing more than 20 people.
Basra used to be known for the beauty of the channels at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and for its cosmopolitan population. But it has been devastated by forty years of war and U.S. embargo. Water has become such a rare and polluted commodity that more than 20,000 people were hospitalized this summer after being poisoned by it. There is ten times more salt in the water than normal, which kills the farms that rely on irrigation.
Even though this region contains some of the biggest oil reserves in the world, exploited by giant western companies, the government has to import refined gasoline to generate power. If people want electricity, they have to use the private generators installed on every street corner, that are expensive and highly polluting. In summer, with temperatures breaking 120 degrees, the polluted air is unbreatheable.
Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, more than a million refugees have come to Basra, living in immense slums. Unemployment has passed 30%. To have a job in the government, according to one Basra resident, “you have to pay $5,000 or belong to a political party.” The oil companies employ very few local workers, because they are not docile enough or qualified in their eyes. Many young people in the region joined the Shiite “patriotic militias” to fight ISIS in Mosul, in the north of the country. Thousands lost their lives or were badly wounded, and they are today abandoned by the politicians in power in Baghdad and Basra.
All of these injustices combined to spark the first wave of protests on July 8. The Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, cut off access to social media and had the demonstrators shot, killing 14 and wounding 250, before firing the Minister of Electricity. Nothing changed, and the conflict reignited on September 5. This time the demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of the political parties representing Basra and then to the governor’s palace.
To the extent that we can tell from the press, the demonstrators dismissed one after another the two Shia coalitions that have been fighting for power in Baghdad since the legislative elections last May 12, one directed by Moqtada al-Sadr and the other supported by the old Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
But, in fact, the U.S. leaders and their western allies have a direct responsibility for the situation faced by the Iraqi population after their multiple invasions.