AT the moment, the war-trodden Iraq is in a complete disarray and chaos. There were high expectations that the May election will bring positive changes on the political front and it would reverse the country’s unabated journey towards degeneration and disintegration. However, things have taken a further negative turn. Two acute crises are the key contributors to this aggravating scenario in Iraq; the ongoing deadly protests in the south and the continued impasse on the formation of new government. Thousands of Iraqis have been protesting on a daily basis in the streets of Najaf, Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Karbala, mostly the Shia-dominant areas, violently protesting against civic services like shortage of water and electricity, rising unemployment, corruption and perceived Iranian interference. Smaller protests have also been witnessed in the capital, Baghdad.
The scale and ferocity of the protests have compelled security forces to resort to the usage of live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannon on the crowds, killing at least 14 since July 8, according to the media sources. Initially it was dismissed by many observers as the routine “annual” protest ritual that will fade away in a few days, but the demonstrators have been continuing to take the unusual step of ramping up their protests, with every possibility of getting out of control. The whole episode was kicked off on July 8, when the Iraqis started gathering in the streets of Basra after Iran, which provides 1,400 megawatts of electricity to the region, suddenly reduced energy supplies. The electricity cut made the situation miserable for the residents forcing them to endure sweltering temperatures hovering around 48 degrees Celsius. This led to spontaneous eruption of protests against the government of Haider al-Abadi and Iran. Though Tehran has not yet made any official comment on why it took this drastic step, but analysts suggest it could have been indirect way to pressurise the Iraqi government to pay outstanding bills for its energy imports.
The fact is that ever since the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the famous Iran nuclear deal, Iran is facing a lot pressure on its economy and it looking for ways to increase its revenues. One theory is that the Iranians want to tell Washington that if you will squeeze our purse, then we will create problem for you elsewhere – Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. There is another version of the story. Allegations are making the rounds that these protests are being incited by the anti-Iran Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc finished first in May’s parliamentary elections, helped incite the protests in an effort to malign Tehran and put indirect pressure of the Haider al-Abadi government as well as other political actors to hasten up the transfer of power. But this theory has little credibility. The protestors have targeted the offices of all the political parties without any discrimination. Apparently, this is an independent movement that primarily originated as a result of extreme frustration over the poor standard of living.
The situation in southern Iraq had also been compounded by a water crisis after Iran began constructing dams on its side of the border. This has created a massive water shortage, as large parts of the Tigris river running dry most of the time. The amount of water flowing through Iraq’s rivers has fallen by at least 40 percent in recent decades, with the shortage of irrigation water discouraging the farmers to avoid the cultivation of strategic crops in Basra, an area once famous for being “Venice of the Gulf”, Yes, anger against Iran is visible there, but anti-Iran sentiments are more limited to electricity-cuts and water shortage. The protest that was ignited by the shortage of electricity has now turned into a violent movement, which is now infiltrating to other Shia-majority areas of Iraq. The sense of extreme deprivation is the main reason behind the current intensity of the rage among the demonstrators. Despite being home to oilfields that account for more than 70 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves, resident have long complained that they do not benefit from country’s oil wealth.
The sense of deprivation has aggravated with the passage of time and now it has reached to the point, where the Iraqi government and political leadership are unable to offer any immediate solution to calm down the protestors. Baghdad is now a centre of intense political manoeuvring and beguiling to form the next government. Prime Minister Al-Abadi, who is seeking to retain his position as prime minister despite coming in third in the May polls, is now working in caretaker capacity until the new government is formed. Because of the credit he gained when the Iraqi army recaptured Mosul, the de facto capital of ISIS in July last year, he was expected to perform better in the May parliamentary elections, but his political grouping came third with 42 seats, while the surprise winner was the Sairoun Alliance of the populist nationalist and anti-Iran cleric Muqtada al-Sadr with 54 seats. He was closely followed by the movement led by Hadi al-Ameri drawn from the Shia paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi which won 47 seats in 329 seat parliament. So, no one has a simple majority to run the show on its own. Mr Abadi is still in office as caretaker, but his chances of staying on as prime minister are very bleak, Muqtada al-Sadr is still unsuccessful in finalizing the coalition partner.
In addition to the on-going dialogue among various political parties for the formation of a workable coalition, the transfer of power to the next government has been delayed due to vote recounting in much of the country, following widespread allegations of ballot rigging. The trickiest part is that all the political parties and alliances, having major differences in their attitudes towards the United States and Iran, are unable to forge any workable formula. Many had predicted various permutations for an al-Sadr-led coalition, but the surprise announcement by Muqtada al-Sadr to consider a coalition talk with pro-Iran Fateh alliance, a political umbrella of Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi militia forces or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has changed the whole texture of the on-going tussle for the coalition. Al-Sadr has been a very fervent critic of the PMF but his intentions to talk with Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the PMF, shows that the arithmetic of elections results have compelled the even staunch opponents to start thinking about sitting on the same table to form the new government.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.