At first glance, the latest Basra protests in Iraq appear to be focused on high unemployment rates, poor public services, and lack of security. But, in reality, there's more at stake here than dirty water.
Clearly, the majority of people in Basra suffer from food shortages, poor medical services, power outages, and many other problems. However, there’s more at stake in the Basra protests than these initial complications. To most people, the unrest in Basra is a sign of growing frustration and anger among Iraqis in general over corruption. Simply put, it comes at a time when most Iraqis no longer trust their politicians, officials, or even religious leaders.
The spark that lights the fire
“The revolution will continue. It will continue until our demands are met!” shouted a man into a CNN camera, as reported by Ben Wedeman on Friday, September 7. It happened just a day or two after the unusual volume of demonstrations had significantly increased in Basra’s streets and squares.
The protests in Basra still continue. They usually start in the morning but also gain momentum after sunset, when the temperature usually drops to more comfortable levels. These protests appear to address serious concerns over the quality and conditions of life in the city. The water supply to Iraq’s third-largest city is usually contaminated by salt; power cuts continue at times of high temperatures; and health care is far below the average world standard. People in the coastal oil-producing city suffer more than just these immediate inconveniences. The unemployment rate is high and has been constant in recent months. There’s also that constant threat of Post-Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: corruption.
Much of Iraq‘s wealth comes from its southern provinces. The area sits atop most of the country’s oil reserves and fertile soil. It also contains the only deep-water port in the country, Um Qasr. Unfortunately, this wealth does not seem to benefit the people of Basra, nor of Iraq as a whole. The wealth does not stay in Basra to reduce these discomforts. This very sad reality has begun bringing about tangible frustration and tension.
No doubt the city, which sits on Shat al-Arab, a waterway system of canals now brimming with dirt and waste, endures a lot of pain. For decades, it was a city of economic prosperity, sophisticated trade, and co-existence. Much of the charm the city has long celebrated is now fading away. Why, then, should they not demonstrate against the local government, take revolutionarily to the streets, or even torch the buildings? Still, viewing this latest unrest from this perspective is basically a crude attempt at misinformation. It is deeply unconvincing since what is happening now is no more than the spark that lights the fire. To borrow CNN’s Ben Wedeman’s words, “There’s more at stake in the Basra protests than dirty water and oil.” It is simply another chapter of a sad and long tragedy that never ends.
A failed state
There was already a growing feeling of disappointment in the political system, with many Iraqis pointing to the widespread corruption in their country. That is where all problems find their roots in contemporary Iraq. That is where the blame should be laid. This argument raises more questions about who is really to blame.
For many years, Iraqis had to turn to Saddam’s Hussein’s regime for their basic needs: food, health care, security, etc. When it collapsed in 2003, just months after the Americans and their anti-Saddam Iraqi allies took over, the organs of the state declined, and more Iraqis turned to their local communities, tribal leaders, and militia groups for assistance. The cost was high as civil violence began to run rampant throughout the country and seriously undercut the entire state. Violence affected not just its credibility, but nearly every component of the regime. So, along with the rising sectarian violence, insurgency and crime have been problems of a de facto failed state.
Two years ago, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad, demanding jobs, health care, social justice, and their basic human rights. The demonstrations extended into the “Green Zone,” the most heavily guarded area of the capital city where most foreign and local officials, diplomats, and leaders live. These marches came in response to the formation of the government. At the time, many Iraqis considered the government as not differing significantly from previous corrupt governments. Again, this reason is credible enough to inspire the spate of mass anti-corruption marches in Baghdad, Basra, or elsewhere in Iraq. It is deeply convincing. Yet, Iraq’s problems are, in fact, of more serious concerns than just the shape of the government.
Basra’s decline, as well as that of the whole country, began in the early 1980s with the eight-year Iraq-Iran war. Thousands of the city’s residents had to leave their homes, businesses, and families in search of security in the northern provinces. The war ended, but their struggle continued even more painfully due to different factors: US-imposed sanctions, the Saddam Hussein regime’s crackdown on civil liberties, and the rise of violent militant protests by many Shi’a groups. Iraq became a sad place to live. Dirt was everywhere and so were collapsed buildings and thousands of decapitated date palms. There were no signs of recovery or hope.
Of course, it was not meant to be this way. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime was meant to lead Iraq into economic prosperity, political stability, and democracy. It was meant to end the vicious plague of bureaucracy, wealth concentration, extreme poverty, unemployment, etc. It was meant to usher in an age of justice, welfare, and growth. However, things went poorly, more so than any pessimist could have imagined. Crime, poverty, and the plague of sectarian violence have now completely torn the country apart, without any end in sight. As the strife continues and Iraqis continue to hold doubts about the future, people may have no other choice but to rebel.
Terrorism adds to the problems
High on the list of Iraqi problems is terrorism, not just because of the danger it represents, but also because the country has no clear strategy to fight it. Presumably, some may note that the two-decade long war on terrorism drained Iraq of all of its energy and resources. Radical Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the broader jihadist movement in the region have always been “a learning enemy,” as General Dempsey once remarked. They have always known how to use and manipulate populations. This explains why it took many years before the Iraqi military could gain significant ground in their strongholds.
Again, to anyone knowledgeable enough about the real danger these two groups and other radical affiliations have represented not just in Iraq, but also in the entire world, this reality may justify the different Iraqi governments’ hardships and challenges. However, it also sends another message, but in a far darker way. Iraq did not have a strategy. They still do not! A serious strategy could have brought about an end to the mess these groups created. What happened is quite the opposite!
Seemingly no one in Iraq believes that their consecutive governments have had a strategy to fight and defeat terrorism. What Iraqis have seen instead is what observers usually call “micromanagement of military policy.” The policy, which caused division in society, has become a civil war between different Iraqi communities.
These governments were happy to take recruits from southern Iraq and mostly Shi’a-populated provinces and send them to the front lines. But they had little time for the Sunni Iraqis. While the war on terrorism continues in the wrong way, many Sunni militants in northern Iraq have joined ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This very sad reality still causes chaos to reign over order and hatred and intolerance to prevail over unity and co-existence. Meanwhile, Baghdad is still gripped by political paralysis, which has been left entirely unchallenged except by the Shi’a cleric and the implacable foe of the US-led occupation, Muqtada al-Sadr. It is still far from deciding on the makeup of a real inclusive political system.
How should the tragedy end?
A tweet by al-Sadr last week said, “I hope you don’t think that the Basra revolutionaries are just a bubble … Quickly release Basra’s money and give it to clean hands, to start at once with immediate and future development projects. And beware of complacency and negligence.” The story may seem laughably thin, as many Iraqis know how strategically he uses propaganda. Yet, it sends a positive message. Iraqis need change!
Now the unrest in Basra, along with the strife within all Iraqi cities, dominates news headlines worldwide. Iraq may have few options to ameliorate this difficult situation. There are few effective paths to follow. If anything could prove to benefit a stable, safe, and prosperous country, it should be the strict path of democracy. Until then, the story of Iraq remains a sad one. Indeed, it is a tragedy with no end yet in sight.