Basra’s protests hold larger significance for the region

The demonstrations over deteriorating infrastructure and contamination of water have also acquired a larger significance with Iranian officials accusing Saudi Arabia of involvement in the burning down of the former’s consulate in the city

September 12, 2018 by Pavan Kulkarni
Thousands of people reported being poisoned by the contaminated water supply in Iraq's second largest city.Photo: Haidar Mohammad Ali/ AFP

After protests over the last two months against the poisoning of water supply went unheeded by the government, violence erupted in Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, after those demonstrating were subjected to a police crackdown. Protesters attacked nearly all the government buildings in the city, and even the consulates of US and Iran.

The protesters claim that corruption in the government and foreign influence are the reasons for the deterioration in the city’s services and infrastructure, which has left residents with no power in the sweltering summer heat of 50 C, and has led to contamination of the sources of water with garbage, chemical waste and salt.. Over 30,000 residents have been poisoned due to this.

Among the few public buildings left standing by the end of last week were those associated with the popular anti-corruption crusader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadrist movement, in alliance with the Iraqi Communist party, won the highest share of votes in the elections in May. However, a government is yet to be formed in Iraq..

“The overwhelming popular anger which has erupted today is not only due to ignoring the legitimate demands and the slow handling of the burning problems that have turned the lives of millions of people into unbearable daily suffering. It is also caused by the repression used by the security forces against peaceful demonstrators who are exercising their constitutional right to demand their basic human rights,” the Iraqi Communist Party said in a statement on September 4.

Two days later, as security forces continued with their crackdown, the furious protesters began to attack the buildings. Attempts made by protesters to break into the US embassy were foiled by Iraqi security forces. However, the Iranian consulate in the city, along with the headquarters of Iran-based militia, were burnt down.

The following day, when the number of deaths had reached 12, al-Sadr, known for his vehement opposition to both US and Iranian intervention in the country, suggested “sending impartial judicial bodies to hold accountable the..aggressors, whether the security forces that attacked the demonstrators.. or the aggressors [who] attacked the public, private, diplomatic.. properties.”

Further, he called for the “formation of honest committees to work on the start of service projects in the province immediately and the removal of all the corrupt who were the cause of what resulted.” Setting a time limit of “45 days to [meet].. all immediate needs”, Sadr also called on protesters “to postpone their demonstrations during this month” or at the very least to ensure that any further demonstrations remained peaceful.

With shops opening the following day and municipal workers cleaning the debris on the streets, an uneasy calm was restored, with troops sent from Baghdad reinforcing the local police. Government officials were shifted to new premises as their old offices had been burnt down.

Diplomatic tensions

However, the attack on the Iranian consulate created some diplomatic tension with Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi calling upon the Iraqi government to meet its obligations by providing the necessary security for its consulate. He also sought the immediate identification and punishment of the “culprits behind the serious crime”.

Noting that Iran had previously alerted the Iraqi government about the possibility of such an attack, he warned Iraq about overt and covert attempts by foreign countries to create a rift in the friendly relations between the countries, hinting at but not naming Saudi Arabia.

However, brigadier general Hossein Dehqan, the adviser to Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, was less explicit. “There is a great sedition led by America, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region,” he said, adding, “Saudi Arabia wants to say, if you want an Iraqi government close to Iran, this [will be the] outcome.”

The people of Basra, he added, “are under economic pressure, they say they lack water, electricity and services, they have problems, they talk to their government and protest. But there is a group connected abroad”, whom he blamed for carrying out the attack at the behest of foreign powers.

Seconding him was Scott Bennett, currently a global psychological warfare-counterterrorism analyst, who in his former capacity as a US army psychological warfare officer, has “developed and managed psychological warfare theories, products, and operations” for multiple agencies of the US state. “This is.. an attempt to create tension and hostility between Iraq and Iran by trying to deceive Iran into thinking that Iraqi citizens are attacking Iran, when in fact these provocateurs are most likely paid mercenary agents from Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he told Tashin News.

Saudi Arabia has been making consistent efforts to forge relations with Iraq in order to check the rising influence of Iran, whose relations with Iraq have been becoming stronger since 2014, from when it has been providing crucial military and technical assistance to the Iraqi government to halt the advance of ISIS. After over a year of negotiations and preparations, Saudi Arabia is set to open its own consulate in Basra soon.

Iraq’s foreign Ministry, regretting the incident, said that the act of burning the consulate had no relevance to the demands made by the protesting residents of the city.

The city of Basra – situated in the south of Iraq at the tapering end of the 200-km-long Shatt al-Arab river, formed at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates – was known as the “Venice of East” for the numerous canals meandering throughout the city, creating a network of waterways plied on by gondolas. Shipments from the oil-rich city account for more than 95% of Iraq’s revenue.

However, years of mismanagement, corruption and neglect have led to the deterioration of the city’s infrastructure and services. For many months now, residents have been complaining about contaminated brownish-yellow water in their taps, which cannot even be used for washing clothes.

It was in the month of July that protests first broke out in the city. In the clashes between the security forces and protesters, two demonstrators were killed after the police open fired as protesters in hundreds attempted to storm a courthouse and a government building, and ended up setting one municipality building on fire.

In an attempt to calm the situation, prime minister Haider al-Abadi flew to the city in mid-July and promised to allot  $3 billion as emergency funds to restore and upgrade the deteriorating infrastructure and provide basic water and electricity supply. However, amid attempts to form a new government post the May elections which gave no party or alliance a sufficient majority, the promised funds were not provided.

“Basra’s water is not suitable for human use, and the services and funds that Abadi promised … have yet to be provided.. The water network in Basra province hasn’t been upgraded in 30 years, and it overlaps with the sewage networks, which are also old and whose water flows into the Shatt al-Arab,” the Governor of Basra complained last month. By the last week of August, 17,000 had already been hospitalized due to poisoning.

While the health minister downplayed the severity by claiming that only 1,500 people had been affected, the Basra health directorate’s figures showed that between August 12 and August 28, an average of 2,000 people reported being poisoned in the province every day.

“The health services provided by the Basra hospitals can hardly cater to the needs of 15% of the cases. Some patients were left to lie on the floor as they failed to receive any treatment,” Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said in its report on August 25, days after the health control division of the Basra health department had confirmed that the chemical pollution of the water had reached 100%, and the bacterial pollution had reached 50%.

The “widespread illness in Basra has led to a lull in one of the largest protest movements in Iraq in years over public services, but the dire situation might ultimately be the catalyst for mobilizing an even bigger movement,” Al-Monitor had warned in an article on August 31.

With this bigger movement, which shook the city throughout last week, having subsided for now, the city’s governor said it will take a minimum of five weeks to supply the city center with potable water.