The past week saw the outbreak of increasingly large and sometimes violent protests in southern Iraq. Centered in Basra and now having spread to eight other provinces of southern Iraq, protestors decried the lack of electricity, clean water and jobs. The protests and the response of Iraqi police and military units have caused several fatalities and seen government buildings and facilities blocked or even set on fire.
While the oil fields around Basra produce over half of Iraq’s oil and gas, the city remains one of the poorest in the country. Much like Kirkuk in the north, Basra produces the bulk of Iraq’s wealth – which then disappears to Baghdad leaving the hydrocarbon-rich areas mired in poverty. While accurate data remains scarce, unemployment, lack of services and poor living conditions in Basra and other southern cities appear much worse than in Kurdistan or other parts of Iraq (with the exception of Sunni areas just liberated from ISIS control, of course).
In the Kurdistan Region, however, the worsening economic conditions beginning in 2014 had clear and well-known causes: The Maliki government’s cutting off of Kurdistan from its share of the Iraqi national budget in 2014, the war on ISIS, a per capita refugee crisis more severe than almost anywhere in the world (with about one in four of Kurdistan’s population being refugees or internally displaced persons), and plummeting international oil prices that hampered Kurdistan’s ability to raise its own budget through independent oil exports.
Before 2014, the economic situation and basic services in Kurdistan were both far better than in Basra or anywhere else in Iraq. Paved roads, access to clean water, electricity most of the day, ample employment, adequate sanitation and health care all made great strides forward in Kurdistan from 2003 to 2014.
The same does not appear to have occurred in much of the rest of Iraq and especially southern Iraqi cities like Basra. Until now, southern Iraqis seemed to have been a good deal more patient than people in Kurdistan who held large protests after their wages stopped being paid on time after 2014. That patience has now worn out, apparently, as the people of Basra and other southern cities revolt against the exploitation and neglect of authorities in Baghdad.
These authorities have even failed to get the electric grid working better in Baghdad than in Kurdistan, despite some $28 billion dollars allotted for the electricity grid between 2004 and 2012. Between 2003 and 2006, tens of billions of US taxpayer money sent to Iraq – often on huge airplane pallets stacked high with shrink-wrapped $100 bills – simply disappeared after being transferred to the Iraqi government. In one particular case in 2010, US investigators even located a bunker in rural Lebanon containing some $1.5 billion dollars in cash and $300 million in gold stolen from the Iraqi treasury.
Although corruption no doubt occurred in Kurdistan as well, the scale of theft and the extreme lack of public services and jobs in the rest of Iraq seemed far worse there.
In other words, the people of Basra and other southern Iraqi cities have every right to be angry today. The protests that erupted more than a week ago denounced all the existing political parties in Iraq. These people’s frustrations, if not addressed, could turn into a more potent enemy of the regime in Baghdad than even ISIS.
Just like when it comes to Sunni Arab areas newly liberated from ISIS and in Kurdish areas recently coerced away from any moves towards independence, the government in Baghdad has a limited window of opportunity to address problems. If Baghdad fails to give Sunnis and Kurds their promised shares of governing power and wealth, if it goes on pumping oil from places like Basra and Kirkuk while the people there continue to live in poverty, the next big Iraqi crisis will not be long in coming. The past week’s protests in the south are simply a warning that people’s patience – whether they be Shia, Sunni, Kurdish or other – has limits.