Widespread suspicion of political chicanery plus record levels of unemployment, food shortages, a lack of water, and the direct involvement of a foreign power – these would add up to a toxic brew for any government. They are some of the problems facing the Iraqi regime, and as a result, the past few months of continuous public unrest and protest can scarcely have come as much of a surprise.
Current problems started immediately after Iraq’s parliamentary elections on 12 May 2018. There were immediate accusations of vote-rigging, and the results were so widely contested that on 6 June the newly-elected 329-seat parliament ordered a manual recount of the results. On 10 June a storage site holding about half of the ballot papers caught fire or was deliberately torched.
Allegations, denunciations and conspiracy theories filled the media. The speaker of the outgoing parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, claimed that the incident was “planned [and] deliberately intended to conceal cases of fraud and falsification of votes and to deceive the Iraqi people…”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is heading a fragile caretaker government until the new government is formed, described the fire as a “plot” aimed at Iraq’s democracy, but a few days after the fire Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji claimed that the damage both to the warehouses and to the stored ballot papers had been minimal. All the same, the manual recount went ahead on 3 July. A month later the results were still awaited.
The parliamentary elections had thrown into prominence the issue of Iranian influence in the internal affairs of Iraq. The winning group, known as the “Sairoon Alliance”, was headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, often described as “the firebrand Shiite cleric”. He once led the Mahdi Army, an Iranian-supported force used to fight the United States during the Iraq war in the 2000s. After the elections, al-Sadr entered into a partnership with the group led by Hadi al-Amiri − the Fatah Alliance − an organization completely under Iran’s thumb.
Al-Abadi, who had relied heavily on US military support during his battles against Islamic State, headed a group called the Victory Alliance.
On 14 July electricity supplies in southern Iraq were suddenly cut off. Iran provides much of the region’s electricity and, when it was discovered that it was Iran that had cut the electricity, citing an unpaid bill of around $1 billion, popular discontent boiled over into street protests. Into the breach stepped the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah. He provided 17 mobile electric generators with a total capacity of 30,000 kilowatts to the southern port city of Basra, together with fuel to operate all the power stations in the country. Videos were circulated on social media showing a convoy of generators and fuel tankers heading into Iraq.
But nothing could stop the demonstrations, not government statements nor a crackdown by the security forces. In Baghdad, hundreds of people poured into Tahrir Square and the eastern Shiite district of Sadr City. When demonstrators broke into the offices of the Badr Organization – Hadi al-Amiri’s political headquarters − guards opened fire. This too did nothing to quell the increasingly violent protestors denouncing corruption and demanding water, electricity and jobs. In a bid to stamp out the protests of a population whipped into a fury by chronic shortages of basic services, authorities imposed a curfew and shut down the internet and social media.
“Water.” said one protester, caught on video at a demonstration in Basra city. “I’m demanding water. It’s a shame that I’m demanding water in 2018 and have oil that feeds the world.”
In the summer months, under regular temperatures of 48 degrees Celsius or more, Basra’s water supply, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, always dwindles – a situation about which successive Iraqi governments have simply shrugged their shoulders. The Tigris and the Euphrates flow into the country through Turkey, and they join in Abadan in Iran. Iraq’s endemic water problem has been increased because storage facilities have been constructed by Turkey and Iran to draw off their waters. In recent decades the levels of the two rivers in Iraq have dropped by at least 40 percent.
In addition, Turkey’s Ilisu dam on the Tigris, some 20 years in the construction, was completed early in 2018. The filling was scheduled to start in March, but concern over water shortages in Iraq led to a delay of three months. By June Iraq’s water situation had deteriorated further, and an emergency session in Iraq’s parliament led to a second postponement while the two governments agreed a method of filling the dam which still allowed for a sufficient flow of the Tigris into Iraq.
By early July protesters in Basra, Iraq’s main oil-producing province, were targeting operations at key energy-sector facilities, demanding jobs and improved services. Following the killing of a protester on 8 July, up to 1,000 demonstrators attempted to block the road to the oil fields in the south. On 15 July al-Abadi, having sacked his Electricity Minister, announced the release of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars (around $2.5 billion) to Basra for water, electricity and health services. But by that time feelings were running too high to be placated, Powerful and influential religious figures like Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, were expressing solidarity with the protesters and declaring al-Abadi the source of Iraq’s many troubles.
This draining of political support, piled on the chaotic internal situation, could cost Abadi another term as prime minister, despite his widely acclaimed successes last year in leading the Iraqi government to victory over Islamic State and resisting a Kurdish bid for independence. If Abadi is forced from power following the election recount, Iran’s influence inside Iraq would be greatly enhanced and America’s much reduced. Not a prospect to be welcomed.