Analysis

Unemployment, Corruption Fuel South Iraq’s Protests

Region’s vast oil wealth is siphoned off by tribal leaders, foreign producers and a dysfunctional central government

A protester holds a sign that reads "We ask the decision makers to provide the things we are deprived of" during a protest in south of Basra, Iraq July 16, 2018.
REUTERS/Essam al-Sudani

It’s hot in Basra. Monday’s high was 46 degrees Celsius, and the summer is just getting started. Temperatures can reach and even exceed 50 degrees. The humidity is also rising, and altogether, the weather has become intolerable.

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Nerves get especially frayed when the power goes out unexpectedly, causing air conditioners and refrigerators to stop working. Children aren’t in school, since it’s summer vacation, and many parents are home because they have no jobs.

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Thus all the anger accumulated during the year has erupted like boiling lava. For more than a week, there have stormy daily protests in Basra and other nearby cities in Iraq’s wealthiest province.

Hundreds have been injured in clashes with the security forces and oil company guards. Nine people have been killed. But not even the burning heat has managed to keep the demonstrators home.

About 70 percent of Iraq’s oil comes from the south, and primarily from the Basra area. Ostensibly, therefore, the 2 million residents of the city and province should have no cause for complaint. The billions of dollars international companies earn from the oil fields every year should have lined residents’ pockets, provided first-class municipal services and allowed them to live even without regular work and enjoy the fruits of the American occupation that liberated the Shi’ite region from Saddam Hussein’s horrific rule 15 years ago.

But the residents, many of whom participated in the uprising against Saddam in the past and joined the battle against the Islamic State, which conquered parts of northern and central Iraq, four years ago, have discovered that this oil isn’t really theirs.

The Iraqi government does receive royalties on the oil. But the well-paying jobs at the foreign drilling companies, where salaries are over $3,000 a month, have been taken by 50,000 foreign workers in the Basra area alone.

Nor are they the only beneficiaries of Iraq’s oil. In fact, according to Iraqi media reports, the main “partners” in these profits are the heads of the tribes on whose lands the oil is located.

The Iraqi government used to pay these tribal leaders compensation of the use of their lands and then bill the oil companies. But the tribal leaders quickly understood that they would do better by demanding “compensation” from the oil companies directly.

Companies that didn’t pay were threatened and their workers’ vehicles were torched. Gangs acting at the tribal leaders’ behest even murdered some workers to get their point across when threats proved insufficient.

Unverified estimates say the oil companies have paid tribal leaders over $100 million in “usage fees,” and the payments keep growing. This bounty has naturally sparked conflicts between tribes and violence between the gangs, making Basra one of the most dangerous places in Iraq — and not on account of any external enemy.

Basra has four universities, but there are no jobs for their graduates — not at the oil companies, and not at government agencies, which have frozen hiring as part of an effort to reduce the government’s huge debts. So engineers are working as drivers or running kiosks to earn a living. Residents say anyone who wants a job has to join one of the armed militias that serve as the religious parties’ private armies, or else one of the parties themselves.

Iraq, which is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, could provide for its own needs and even those of other countries had billions of dollars not found their way into private pockets. Officially, for instance, successive governments have invested $40 billion in upgrading water and electricity infrastructure since 2004. But that investment exists on paper only. Thus Basra residents still have to buy potable water from tankers, which charge outrageous prices.

In fact, the spark that set off the current protests was a brawl between a young man from a village north of Basra and the owner of a water tanker whom the young man thought was overcharging. This local dispute became an intertribal quarrel and then spilled out into the streets.

Another problem is that months after the last election, Iraq still has no functioning government. A manual recount in certain provinces ended only recently, following serious allegations of fraud. Now, difficult negotiations over forming a consensus government are beginning among the various political blocs and religious and ethnic communities.

The bloc that won the most votes, but not enough to form a government, was the one headed by Shi’ite separatist Muqtada al-Sadr, who styles himself the patron of the poor. Since the start of the year, he has led huge demonstrations outside government ministries; he also headed demonstrations in summer 2015 and summer 2010. He favors letting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi remain in office, but is demanding that Abadi resign from Islamic Dawa — to which former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also belonged — in order to end that party’s monopoly on government.

The Kurds and the Sunni minority have their own agendas. They are conditioning their willingness to join one of the Shi’ite blocs, thereby enabling it to form a government, on ministerial portfolios and other benefits. This could impede the new government’s formation or its functioning once it is formed.

This week, Abadi promised to allocate $3.5 billion to upgrading the water and electricity systems in the Basra area and create thousands of jobs. But for residents, who don’t trust the government, these promises aren’t enough. They rightly suspect that this money, too, will find its way into the pockets of cronies and interested parties who won’t tend to the province’s needs.

Abadi has no magic solution to appease residents of the south. So instead, he’s using the army and police, disconnecting phone and internet service, imposing nighttime curfews on the city and arresting hundreds of people to try to calm the city and let the oil companies keep working.

As usual, his supporters are accusing foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and Israel, of inflaming the protests. But the demonstrators don’t seem to be buying this explanation. They are putting their trust instead in Iraq’s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has criticized the government for its haplessness and its aggression against its own citizens and demanded an immediate solution.

But it’s hard to say that these demonstrations pose a threat to the government’s stability, because there isn’t really any government to topple right now.

The only solution that might appease the protesters is sending millions of dollars directly to Basra and its residents to ease their severe economic distress. But Iraq’s external debt already exceeds $112 billion, including $1 billion owed to Iran, which this month turned off the electricity it supplies to Iraq because the latter hadn’t met the payment schedule agreed to last year, after Iran shut off the power due to a $2 billion debt.

Thus it seems all the government can do is wait for September, when the temperature will start dropping, in the hopes that the level of anger will drop along with it.