The Iraq Report: Basra's fury erupts anew as protesters killed

The Iraq Report: Basra's fury erupts anew as protesters killed
8 min read
06 September, 2018
Our latest roundup from Iraq focuses on the violent crackdown on protests in Basra
Protests in Basra have only been fuelled by anger over the violent crackdown [AFP]
The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report in your inbox

Just when the international community thought the unrest that gripped central and southern Iraq had died down, normal Iraqis have once again caught the entire world by surprise by reigniting their demands for basic services, including clean drinking water and electricity.

Tragically, the largely peaceful protests have been met by state violence, as Iraqi security forces have cracked down, killing seven - triggering demonstrators to react by setting fire to government buildings.

As Iraqi politicians scramble to contain the Iraqi street's fury, they have made breakthroughs in government-formation talks that have been stagnant since elections in May.

Election winner Muqtada al-Sadr's coalition and caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's list have joined forces along with others to form the largest parliamentary bloc.

This could mean that a new Iraqi government could be in power before the end of October.

Video: Water pollution lays waste to southern Iraq

Basra ablaze 

Protests against a severe lack of public services, including reliable electricity and potable water, erupted once more across southern Iraq last weekend, with the country's third largest city of Basra at their epicentre.

Protesters had been briefly placated after a summer of unrest by a combination of pledges to resolve chronic problems - along with mass arrests coupled with police brutality. However, demonstrators have now resumed their calls for accountability of corrupt officials and state mismanagement after government promises to resolve Iraq's infrastructure crises failed to materialise. 

But tensions escalated after a series of violent reprisals seemingly led by Iraqi counter-terrorism forces led to the deaths of seven protesters in two days.

Makki Yasir, a young Basran man, bled to death after he was shot in the shoulder on Republican Road in Basra's city centre on Monday. The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site reported activists saying security forces then engaged in a widespread campaign of arrests, with some witnessing abuses by officers.

Read more: Iraq army puts Basra on lock-down amid protest turmoil

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced an investigation into Yasir's death after the Iraqi Human Rights Commission denounced the excessive use of force by security personnel.

By Tuesday, Iraqis incensed at the cold-blooded killing of Yasir had descended on the city's main municipal building calling for justice for the slain youth. Security forces once again used live ammunition, but were this time met by protesters launching fireworks and Molotov cocktails at them. Six demonstrators were shot dead while 15 military personnel were injured.

While some politicians sought to blame demonstrators for the violence, the Human Rights Commission's Basra chief, Mahdi al-Tamimi, again laid blame at the door of the military and police, stating that they had "directly fired on protesters".

Also addressing Yasir's death on Monday, Tamimi said: "We call on the Iraqi judiciary to open an immediate investigation into the killing of a demonstrator who was shot in the shoulder and subjected to electric shocks by security forces."

Tempers in Basra have not been calmed; protesters retaliated to the latest deaths by attacking the main government building in the city centre and setting it ablaze on Wednesday. Complaining about the authorities' excessive use of force leading up to the torching of the government building, one protester said: "It is as if they are fighting terrorists and not their own people."

These demonstrations are highly unlikely to subside any time soon. As many as 20,000 people were recently hospitalised after it became apparent that Basra's water supply had unacceptably high levels of cyanide and other pollutants, enraging residents and the wider Iraqi population. The mass poisoning came not long after the government promised billions in redevelopment funds for the Shia-dominated south.

Southern Iraq is also the voter base of many of the dominant Shia Islamist parties in Iraq, who now risk alienating their own supporters by failing to tackle the rampant corruption and mismanagement that has led to such severe crises afflicting Iraqis on a month-by-month basis. Politicians would ordinarily rely on divisive politics to capitalise from sectarian divisions, a tactic that proved fruitful for more than a decade.

However, Iraqis across the sectarian and ethnic divides are increasingly becoming increasingly aware that their problems are perhaps less to do with their neighbours, and more to do with their leaders.

The killing of Makki Yasir sparked further protests and a violent crackdown in Basra [AFP]

Sadr and Abadi team up

Iraq's political classes have meanwhile made substantial progress in the formation of a new government after Prime Minister Abadi and hardcore Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr finally hammered out a deal on Sunday with several smaller parties to form a parliamentary majority.

The deal will include 170 lawmakers across 16 political groupings, demonstrating Iraq's inherently unstable parliamentary system in a legislature with 329 seats. Sadr's bloc won 54 seats in May last year, while Abadi claimed third place with 42 seats. Both men will join forces with secular Shia leader Iyad Allawi, who won 21 seats, as well as several smaller Sunni lists and on-again-off-again Iran protégé Ammar al-Hakim who won 19 seats.

Parliament now has to elect a new speaker - traditionally a Sunni Arab - before electing a president within 30 days, a post reserved for the Kurdish minority in the post-Saddam constitution. The president will then give the largest parliamentary bloc 15 days to form a new government, which means that Iraqis could have a new cabinet in office before the end of October - and incumbent Abadi is likely to remain in post as prime minister.

The deal paved the way for parliament to convene its first session on Monday, which was ultimately thrown into disarray when almost half of all lawmakers failed to turn up for work. The Sadr-Abadi coalition will face off against a more overtly pro-Iran bloc led by former premier Nouri al-Maliki and notorious militia commander and former cabinet minister Hadi al-Amiri.

It is too simplistic to characterise the two opposing camps as one being close to Washington while the other favours Tehran. Both sides have varying levels of both US and Iranian influence, with the allegedly pro-US Abadi hailing from the Dawa Party that was incubated by the Iranian regime during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and Sadr being a key beneficiary of Iranian arms and money following the ousting of President Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Meanwhile, Maliki and Amiri cannot be described as being anti-US, as they both took advantage of US diplomatic support while also benefiting from American firepower during fighting against groups such as the Islamic State group.

A more nuanced explanation would be one where alliances and loyalties constantly shift, with each party maintaining a bridge from which to return to the opposing side should circumstances require. Iran may be flavour of the month for Maliki while he is on the back foot, for instance, but once he is in a stronger position, he could quite easily shift back to becoming friendlier to the US and benefiting from its greater international standing.

Also, one must bear in mind the dynamics of US-Iranian relations, how they often intersect, and can be symbiotic of one another.

Israel threatens to strike Iranian interests in Iraq

An example of the symbiotic US-Iranian relationship - despite all the hateful rhetoric - is how Washington has applied pressure on its Israeli ally not to follow through with threats to strike Iranian interests in Iraq.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned on Monday that his country would strike suspected Iranian targets stationed in Iraq, just as Israel has done in Syria. Liberman signalled that Tel Aviv would take any action necessary to neutralise Iranian threats to Israel, whether in Syria or beyond.

Lieberman's comments come after three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and a further two western intelligence sources were cited as saying that Iran had transferred ballistic missiles to its proxies in Iraq over the past few months. Some of those officials suggested Iran was actively disseminating missile-making technical knowledge and capabilities in an attempt to outsource its missile programme - currently the subject of scrutiny from the United States.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that the Trump administration was "deeply concerned" by reports of Iranian ballistic missile transfers inside Iraq, and stated that Baghdad should decide what happens inside its own borders, not Tehran.

However, Reuters reported that Washington had recently asked Tel Aviv not to conduct any attacks in Iraq. The US is likely concerned that Israeli attacks against Iranian targets in Iraq would spoil its own plans for the country by triggering Iran to activate its proxies to actively target US assets.

Iraq appears to be constantly embroiled in Iranian plans, as reports citing intelligence sources on Tuesday also seem to indicate that Tehran is using civilian flights over Iraqi airspace to smuggle weapons to Hizballah in Lebanon.

Although technically at war with Israel since 1948, Baghdad cannot afford to become caught between Tel Aviv and Tehran as they spar with each other following the explosion in Iranian influence in the region after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship in 2003. Iraq is in no position to resist any Israeli attack, and is similarly powerless to resist Iran's influence over its security apparatus, particularly the Shia Islamist militants of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

Any altercation between Iran and Israel will inevitably mean chaos for Iraq, and with the protests still simmering in the south, that is a threat Baghdad's politicians should not tolerate.

The Iraq Report is a fortnightly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox