“The revolution will continue,” the man shouted into the camera, “it will continue until our demands are met!”
On Friday morning, the protests in Basra continued. The day was young, and it was already a scalding 43 degrees centigrade (109 degrees Fahrenheit). By the afternoon it was even hotter. The protests usually pick up after sunset, when the temperatures drop – ever so slightly.
All this week Basra, Iraq’s third-largest city, has been wracked by protests over the decrepit state of public services. The municipal water supply is contaminated by salt water, sending thousands to the hospital in recent months, while long power cuts continue, at a time when daytime temperatures regularly reach 50 degrees centigrade (122 Fahrenheit).
Added to these immediate, in-your-face discomforts are perennial unemployment and that constant of contemporary Iraq, rampant corruption.
It shouldn’t be like that. Southern Iraq sits atop around 80% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, and contains the country’s only deep-water port, Um Qasr. Much of the country’s wealth comes from the Basra area, but doesn’t stay there.
Fall from grace
Basra, sitting on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, was once known as the “Venice of the East” because of its system of canals, canals now brimming with rubbish. Not long ago it was a prosperous, ethnically diverse, sophisticated trading city, its hinterland producing world-famous dates.
Basra’s decline began in the early 1980s with the Iran-Iraq war, when frequent Iranian shelling forced hundreds of thousands to flee, followed by the lean years of the US-imposed international sanctions.
I visited the city several times during the 1990s, and it barely showed signs of recovery. It was a sad, dirty, decaying place, with many of the buildings still damaged. Outside Basra stood the stark trunks of hundreds of decapitated date palms, their tops lopped off by the shelling.
In recent years Iraq’s resources have been focused on the war against ISIS. The government was happy to take recruits from southern Iraq and send them to the front, but had little time or energy for Basra.
While Basra burns, Baghdad is gripped by political paralysis following an inconclusive election in May. The various political forces have been haggling over the spoils and are still far from deciding on the makeup of the new government.
In July caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised billions of dollars to upgrade Basra’s services after an earlier outbreak of protests. That was two months ago, and promises remain just promises.
The real winner from the current unrest may be Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who has emerged as a blistering critic of corruption.
Protesting the elite’s excesses
Al-Sadr, not long ago an implacable foe of the US-led occupation, in 2016 inspired a spate of mass anti-corruption marches on Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone, a 10-square-kilometer fortified forbidden zone containing the Iraqi parliament, ministries, embassies and the sumptuous villas of Iraqi leaders.
The Baghdad marches, which saw protesters occupy the parliament, were inspired by the same grievances that have spurred on the unrest in Basra. While Baghdad suffered – and continues to suffer – from prolonged power cuts, deteriorating public services and a stagnant economy, the inhabitants of the Green Zone lived – and continue to live – in isolated splendor behind high walls.
Al-Sadr has capitalized on the deep resentment against the excesses of Iraq’s political class, and Basra is a golden opportunity.
In a pointed tweet addressed to Abadi, al-Sadr 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 tweet aside, al-Sadr has agreed to unite his Sairoun electoral list with Abadi’s Nasr list in the hopes of forming a workable government. Via Basra’s revolt, he may be reminding Abadi that, even though the latter is expected to sit in the prime minister’s chair, al-Sadr has the street.
While protesters have torched almost every other political party or militia office in Basra, al-Sadr’s Saraya As-Salam militia offices have been spared.
Above and beyond domestic politics, unrest in Basra could have an immediate impact on global oil prices. Iraq has the world’s second-largest proven oil reserves, and the production from the area around Basra makes up, according to some estimates, as much as 4% of world oil production.
Already, angry Basra residents have protested outside oil company facilities demanding jobs, and others have blocked the road to the port of Um Qasr.
The danger of disruption to Iraq’s oil exports comes at a time when the Trump administration is hell-bent on crippling Iran’s ability to export oil as it imposes sanctions after pulling out of the nuclear deal.
As distant and disconnected as a man shouting about revolution in a city far, far away might seem, it’s much closer than you might think.