The current protests in Iraq are the most serious seen in the country for years, and are taking place at the heart of some of the world’s largest oilfields. The Iraqi government headquarters in Basra was set ablaze, as were the offices of those parties and militias blamed by local people for their wretched living conditions. Protesters have blockaded and closed down Iraq’s main sea port at Umm Qasr, through which it imports most of its grain and other supplies. Mortar shells have been fired into the Green Zone in Baghdad for the first time in years. At least 10 people have been shot dead by security forces over the last four days in a failed effort to quell the unrest.
If these demonstrations had been happening in 2011 during the Arab Spring then they would be topping the news agenda around the world. As it is, the protests have so far received very limited coverage in international media, which is focusing on what might happen in the future in Idlib, Syria, rather than on events happening now in Iraq.
Iraq has once again fallen off the media map at the very moment when it is being engulfed by a crisis that could destabilise the whole country. The disinterest of foreign governments and news outlets has ominous parallels with their comatose posture five years ago when they ignored the advance of Isis before it captured Mosul. President Obama even dismissed, in words he came to regret, Isis as resembling a junior basketball team playing out of their league.
The causes of the protests are self-evident: Iraq is ruled by a kleptomaniac political class that operates the Iraqi state apparatus as a looting machine. Other countries are corrupt, notably those rich in oil or other natural resources, and the politically well connected become hugely wealthy. However big the rake-off, something is usually built at the end of the day.
In Iraq it does not happen that way, and among the angriest victims of 15 years of wholesale theft are the two million inhabitants of Basra. Once glorified as the Venice of the Gulf, its canals have turned into open sewers and its water supplies are so polluted as to be actually poisonous.
Protests erupted earlier this year because of the lack of electricity, water, jobs and every other government service. The injustice was all the more flagrant because the oil companies around Basra are exporting more crude than ever before. In August this totalled four million barrels a day, earning the government in Baghdad some $7.7bn over the course of the month.
Few things epitomise the failure of the Iraqi state so starkly as the fact that, despite its vast oil wealth, Basra is now threatened by a cholera outbreak, according to local health officials. Basra hospitals have already treated 17,500 people for chronic diarrhoea and stomach ailments over the past two weeks, after they became ill from drinking polluted water. Salt water is mixing with fresh water, making it brackish and reducing the effectiveness of the chlorine that would otherwise kill the bacteria. There is plenty of bacteria around because the water system has not been updated for 30 years and sewage from broken pipes is mixing with drinking water.
Iraqi governments are not much good at coping with crises like these at the best of times, and this one strikes at a particularly bad moment because the two main political blocs are failing to form a new government in the aftermath of the parliamentary election on 12 May. The new parliament met for the first time this week, failed to elect a speaker and decided to take 10 days off, but is now to meet in emergency session on Saturday to discuss the crisis in Basra.
But even if a new government is formed under the current prime minister Haider al-Abadi, or some other figure, it may not make much difference. The party that unexpectedly polled best in the election was the one following the nationalist populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which was allied to the small Iraqi Communist Party, thereby emphasising its secular, non-sectarian and progressive policies. On the other hand, critics claim that in the past government Sadrist ministers have been just as corrupt as those of the other parties. The problem is not just individual corruption but the political mechanism as a whole: ministries are shared out between the parties which then use them as cash cows and sources of patronage jobs. Mudher Salih, a financial adviser to Abadi, explained to me in Baghdad earlier this year how this works, adding that “unless the political system is changed it is impossible to fight corruption”.
This system of jobs for the boys, regardless of personal merit or professional qualifications, has damaging consequences for ordinary Iraqis. Many of those who have climbed onto the gravy train over the past 15 years would not know how to improve matters even if they wanted to. One former governor of Basra is reported to have handed back a large part of its budget because he said he could not think of anything on which to spend the money.
Why is this happening now? The Iraqi government, backed by the US, Iran and many other allies, won its greatest victory last year when it recaptured Mosul from Isis after a nine month siege. Paradoxically, this success meant many Iraqis were no longer preoccupied by the threat posed by Isis to themselves and their families. They focused instead on the ramshackle state of their country – the lack of roads, bridges, hospitals and schools, as well as the shortage of electricity and water, in a place where summer temperatures reach 50C.
Many Iraqis say they favour radical or even revolutionary change but the status quo will be difficult to uproot, however unsatisfactory it may be. It is not only the elite who plug into the oil revenues. Some 4.5 million Iraqis get salaries from the state and they – and not just crooked billionaires – have an incentive in keeping things as they are, however toxic.
Iraq will most likely continue to be misruled by a weak dysfunctional government, thereby opening the door to various dangers. Isis is down but not entirely out: it could rally its forces, perhaps in a different guise, and escalate attacks. Divisions within the Shiah community are growing deeper and more rancorous as the Sadrists – whose offices, unlike those of the other parties, have not been burned by demonstrators – grow in influence.
A festering political crisis will not be confined to Iraq. The outside world should have learned this lesson from the aftermath of the US-led invasion of 2003. Rival Iraqi parties always seek foreign sponsors whose interests they serve as well as their own. The country is already one of the arenas of the escalating US-Iran confrontation. As with the threat of a cholera epidemic in Basra, Iraqi crises tend to spread swiftly and infect the whole region.