Protests in Southern Iraq Intensify, Is Instability to Follow?

Protesters wave national flags in front of the provincial council building during a demonstration demanding better public services and jobs in Najaf, Iraq, 100 miles south of Baghdad, on July 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Anmar Khalil)

Widespread protests have erupted across southern Iraq over the past two weeks, sparked by long-simmering grievances regarding insufficient electricity, water quality, and unemployment. While demonstrations are common during Iraq’s hot summer months, this year’s protests appear far more broad in terms of participation, geographic spread, and violence as they expand from the oil export city of Basra through Maysan, Dhi Qar, Wasit, Babil, Karbala, and Najaf provinces.

How did southern Iraq reach this boiling point? July’s outburst of anger—directed at parties across Iraq’s political spectrum, foreign oil companies, and, notably, Iran—points to several factors driving southern Iraqi instability that extend beyond the recent escalating protest movement. Critically, the interrelated effects of economic collapse and endemic corruption, severe environmental degradation, and ongoing tribal and criminal violence undermine Baghdad’s ability to exert meaningful control over its southern provinces, while insufficient service-provision and poor governance leaves many southerners with a sense of disaffection from the national political process.

Simmering Resentment

Public anger and instability have been brewing in southern Iraq since late 2017, when Basrawis demonstrated against insufficient electricity supplies, poor water quality, and controversial plans to reform the electric-sector’s fee structure. Over the past year there have been more than 260 separate protests, often expressing highly-local demands such as wage increases, infrastructure development, or improved water and service provision. More recently, between November 2017 and April 2018, southern Iraq averaged 12 to 14 significant (comprising more than 150 individuals) protests per month, with large-scale electricity-related demonstrations concentrated around Nasiriyah, Basra, Samawah, and Rumaitha. By June, the region experienced at least one protest each day, focusing on clean water, employment, infrastructure development, and sufficient electricity.

Current protests amplified these grievances. Some analysts have speculated that Iran seeks to leverage demonstrations to disrupt Iraqi oil export, while others blame political actors like Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr—who emerged with the greatest share of votes in May’s parliamentary elections—for fomenting instability. These explanations, however, do not adequately explain how southern Iraq reached this crisis-point. A case in point is Basra, where demonstrations originated. The region encapsulates much of the anger felt by southern Iraqis, as well as the sources of instability driving July’s demonstrations: 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, it remains without sufficient electricity, water, healthcare, educational, or other basic services despite vast oil wealth.

The Iraqi government, of course, cannot afford long-term instability in the south. Basra’s oilfields and Persian Gulf export terminal account for approximately 95 percent of the country’s GDP and its only sea-access. The region sent tens of thousands of young men to fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), many of whom are now returning home with their weapons. Yet, many Iraqi political leaders took southern Iraq’s relative stability for granted, ignoring steadily growing political volatility, economic malaise, and deep public anger against both provincial and national politicians. During the May 2018 parliamentary elections, only 14.4 percent of Basra’s eligible voters went to the polls (compared to a still-dismal 44.5 percent nationally), a figure that underscored the region’s sense of dislocation from Baghdad and ongoing desires among the population for increased autonomy from the federal government.

Southern Iraq’s Economic Seesaw

Given its location and natural resource wealth, Basra could be Iraq’s wealthiest and most secure province. It has remained relatively immune from ISIS activity and is home to the country’s only ports and most productive oilfields. High oil prices between 2010 and 2014 fueled a period of rapid development that seemed to presage a stable future. By 2013, Basra city boasted new restaurants, movie theaters, and shopping malls visited by families looking to spend newly-acquired income from oil-sector jobs. In January 2014, the price of a typical 1,200 square-foot property in central Basra reached $1 million, while rent averaged $2,000 per month. Rapid socioeconomic transformations pushed many poorer residents to rapidly-growing slums on the city’s under-developed outskirts.

This growth, however, belied endemic corruption jeopardizing emerging prosperity. Flush with cash from a booming oil sector, the Baghdad government paid billions of dollars to international oil companies between 2010 and 2014 to incentivize expansion into southern Iraq. A significant portion of these funds was siphoned into “protection fees” to pay local armed groups linked to powerful tribal organizations. This extortive economy subsidized Basra’s tribal and militia groups, as tribal leaders cemented influence by securing provincial ministry jobs for their members. By late 2013, Basrawi officials estimated that armed groups controlled 62 floating docks used for oil export and smuggling, while nine separate “security services” operated at the port to extract bribes and fees from contractors, civil administrators, and international firms.

During this post-2010 expansion period, during which southern Iraqi oilfields boosted production by nearly 80 percent, the average cost of a bribe increased to keep pace with available revenue. Many international and Basrawi businesses considered “corruption” a necessary budget-item, and most preferred to pay militias rather than manage threats from their fighters. With generous subsidies from Baghdad and growing export volume incentivizing waste, many groups—which in 2009 had regularly accepted $100 protection fees from oil contractors and local businesses—by 2014 demanded upward of $10,000 for “permission” to continue or expand operations. Graft manifested in logistical and economic networks, as contractors were obliged to purchase supplies like cement, steel, or piping from tribal organizations at two or three times the market price.

When oil prices collapsed in mid-to-late 2014, this fragile balance of corruption, bribery, and security undergirding Basra’s oil-fueled growth deteriorated. Government subsidies ceased as oil-revenue dropped by nearly 50 percent, fueling escalatory violence between tribal groups competing for access to a dwindling client base. Meanwhile, oil-sector contractors in Basra reportedly laid off between 30 and 80 percent of their employees by early 2017, emptying entire migrant labor settlements and leaving thousands of Basrawis without stable income.

Movement and Mobilization

Basra’s whiplash from this growth and subsequent decline coincided with a period of accelerated demographic movement across southern Iraq as rural populations from agricultural areas moved into the city’s low-income outskirts. Over the past decade, large swaths of agricultural land in Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, and Maysan provinces have become infertile due to deteriorating water supplies and rising salinity. In late 2014, for example, an Iraqi government survey indicated that 97 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Muthanna and 80 percent of IDPs in Dhi Qar cited drought as the primary cause for their displacement, with similar figures for rural areas in Basra Province. By late 2017, rural southern families were at the greatest risk for food insecurity of any region in Iraq.

Rural emigration strained capacity in Basra and other southern cities to house and provide essential services for a rapidly-growing low-income population concentrated in an archipelago of informal settlements. Today, Basrawi taps often spit out water too salty for brushing teeth as desalinization facilities struggle to handle growing urban demands. Meanwhile, decreased water flow through the Euphrates and Shatt al-Arab Rivers—a result of dam construction in Turkey—has allowed seawater from the Persian Gulf to seep into freshwater watersheds. Basra provincial authorities reported a total dissolved solids (TDS) concentration (a measure of water quality in milligrams of non-water molecules present per liter of water) in 2004 of 3,000; by July 2018, that figure had risen to 17,000. The maximum TDS for safe drinking water is 500.

Water quality also exacerbates other regional issues, including insufficient power generation. For example, electrical power plants and oil refineries that require a steady supply of fresh water to spin their turbines curtailed operations from July 5-7 after the Shatt al-Arab’s salt content exceeded operable levels—further exacerbating power outages across the region and inciting grievances against Baghdad and provincial authorities.

Growing slums have also provided militia and criminal organizations with a reliable and growing recruitment source. Since 2014, many armed groups operating inside Basra and surrounding areas merged with the Popular Mobilization organization, a move that afforded legal cover, additional weapons, and new funding streams. As militias consolidated gains after 2014, stability in Basra deteriorated. Late that year, the Iraqi Army’s 14th Division and a Federal Police Battalion responsible for security in Basra redeployed to defend Baghdad from ISIS, leaving only nine incomplete police battalions and an under-strength army battalion to secure the province of approximately 4.7 million people. The security vacuum resulted in a dramatic increase of armed robberies, resurgent tribal clashes, and organized crime (such as drug trafficking).

Insecurity has worsened as thousands of Basrawi PMU fighters return home from the battlefield against ISIS. These veterans overwhelm Basra’s ailing public health system; in an effort to expand the number of post-surgical beds, for example, the Health Ministry repurposed one of Saddam Hussein’s decrepit former palaces into a prosthesis and physiotherapy clinic. The majority of these returnees rely on government pensions and social security payouts that Baghdad can increasingly ill-afford. Meanwhile, financial strain has created new potential sources of local conflict in a highly militarized environment, fueling violent tribal disputes. Over the past several years, some landlords have demanded higher rent payments from families with relatives in the PMU, fueling widespread resentment at Baghdad’s inability to support veterans or their families.

In February 2018, a rapid intensification of tribal and militia-related violence over dwindling water, agricultural, and employment resources prompted Baghdad to launch a major security operation to restore stability, halt tribal violence, and quell ongoing unrest in the south. The operation comprised approximately 20,000 soldiers from the Iraqi Army, Special Forces, Federal Police, and assorted local and paramilitary units. While an increased military presence in Basra temporarily halted clashes, by June 2018 rates of violence had surpassed January levels in Basra, Dhi Qar, and Diwaniya—highlighting Baghdad’s failure to monopolize the use of government force across the southern region. Recent security deployments to quell demonstrations comprising six Emergency Response Division and three elite Counter-Terrorism battalions are thus likely unable to bring sustained stability.

Potential for a Dangerous Crisis

Years of insufficient services, institutionalized corruption, environmental degradation, and insecurity has left Basrawis—as well as their neighbors across southern Iraq—with few outlets for anger other than protest. Baghdad and provincial politicians have offered few long-term solutions. On July 15, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a series of measures to assuage protester demands that included additional financial allocations to desalinate water and increase water quotas in Basra, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, and Diwaniya. Three days earlier, the Iraqi Oil Ministry pledged to create 10,000 new jobs—an announcement met with justified incredulity on the streets of Basra.

Such half-measures ignore the roots of instability in southern Iraq and fail to provide long-term or economically sustainable reforms. By contrast, critical efforts to boost southern Iraq’s desalination capacities, like the $7 billion Common Seawater Supply Project (CSSP), remain ensnared in bureaucratic red tape. Troublingly, the current caretaker government, already mired in negotiations to form a governing coalition after the May elections, has few incentives to pursue long-term development now. Instead, political elites may resort to time-tested methods of protest resolution, combining co-option (buying protesters off with promises of jobs) and coercion. It is dubious whether such an approach can succeed in southern Iraq, following years of official neglect. Without more thorough government engagement to address the problems facing southern regions, current grievance could presage greater instability.

Matthew Schweitzer is a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, where he focuses on Iraq and Persian Gulf security. He tweets @PostWarWatch.