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Tristan Leoni: #Iraq, From riot to impossible reform – Part One: Rage and Fire 2018

I stopped in elementary school, but I already knew how to shoot with a Kalashnikov. We were training in the neighborhood.

A Basra resident, former militiaman

Originally published by TŘÍDNÍ VÁLKA (Class War). Translated by Friends of the Class war.

Since the crash of the Islamic State (ISIS) in autumn 2017, Iraqi news has been regularly punctuated by episodes of demonstrations and riots on a background of basic social demands (for access to electricity and drinking water, and for jobs) as well as denunciation of corruption among political staff.
However, this context of peace and finally restored national harmony opened a period particularly favorable to initiate reforms and try to meet the immense social expectations of the population. A precious political capital that the government has squandered in a few months through intense inaction. The anger and frustration of the people are, once again, boundless. The efforts and sacrifices made during the war against the Caliphate were in vain. Over the months, waves of mobilization, violence and the determination of the demonstrators seem to be increasing: riots, fires and clashes with the security forces are increasingly shaking the country. Until October 2019, when the protest movement entered a new phase, on a larger scale, but with different practices. While the government is more than ever in the spotlight, we know however that the State will be preserved.

A country in ruins

War after war, ruins upon ruins. From 2014 to 2017, the northern half of Iraq, with a Sunni majority, is once again ravaged by fighting, first while being rapidly conquered by ISIS (which stops 100 km north of Baghdad), then while being very slowly liberated.
The cost of destruction related to this conflict is estimated by the World Bank at $45.7 billion in January 2018. In some areas, everything is destroyed; cities are almost razed to the ground, in others there is no infrastructure left. For example, only 38 per cent of the country’s schools are still standing, and only half of the hospitals. A city like Mosul was “liberated” from ISIS only at the cost of 8 million tons of rubble and hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

The country’s economy has obviously not been spared, particularly the essential hydrocarbon sector, which accounts for 88% of the country’s budgetary resources, 51% of GDP and 99% of its exports. Nevertheless, Iraq remains the second largest producer of crude oil within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), after Saudi Arabia, with an average production of 4.5 million barrels per day. Some infrastructure has suffered particularly, for example the Baiji refinery, the largest in the country, which only partially restarts in spring 2018. For several years Iraq needs to import refined products (including fuel), gas and electricity from neighboring countries, particularly from Iran. Three-quarters of the water infrastructure and half of the power plants are indeed destroyed. According to region, Iraqis receive only five to eight hours of electricity a day, and shortages of drinking water are chronic. In Baghdad, for example, a quarter of the population does not have access to drinking water.
Agricultural production has also fallen, particularly as a result of the destruction of irrigation systems, exacerbating an already endemic rural exodus.

In 2018, the unemployment rate officially stands at 23% in Iraq, but it is estimated to reach 40% among young people (those under 24 representing 60% of the population). In fact, there is relatively little work in Iraq. The first economic sector, oil, ultimately provides few jobs, especially since foreign companies hire many Asian migrants (considered to be more docile and exploited at will than local workers). The private sector remains weak, and in reality there are only two branches of activity that provide jobs for the population: firstly, the civil service, which has five million civil servants (including retirees) compared to half a million in 2003. Secondly, the violence sector, with the Iraqi army comprising approximately 200,000 men, and the Hashd al-Shaabi, popular mobilization units (PMU), around 100,000. The latter, which is a coalition of about fifty mostly Shia militias, recruited a lot in 2014 after the fatwa of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani ordering the mobilization against ISIS’ troops. Tens of thousands of volunteers (mostly unemployed) responded to this call, one third of them from the province of Basra. Thousands died there, and many returned injured, sometimes amputated. The end of the war against ISIS leads only to a partial demobilization of these troops. A militiaman back in civilian life means for a family one less source of revenue and an extra mouth to feed.

In Kuwait, in February 2018, at a conference on the reconstruction of the country, while the Iraqi government was asking for more than 88 billion dollars, the international community promised it only about 30 billion dollars in credits and investments (in particular Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar). But, as a result of an exceptional corruption, which is among the strongest in the world, we know that a part of international aid –as well as a part of the oil rent – disappears into the pockets of local politicians. Successive governments have reportedly embezzled nearly 410 billion euros since Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, which means twice the country’s GDP.
On top of that, as Iraq at war has become familiar with debt, in 2016 the country signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, in exchange for loans, it committed itself to taking austerity measures (drop in the number of civil servants, increase in electricity prices, increase in customs taxes and income taxes, etc.).As we can see, in Iraq, the years of liberation and reconstruction are unlikely to one day be considered glorious. Disappointment, frustration and anger of the inhabitants seem as great as before the Caliphate episode. Either because they certainly get no benefit for it (ruined or displaced veterans or civilians), or because they have once again lost everything (ISIS’ supporters, Sunnis humiliated by the Shia occupation). It seems we are back to the status quo ante. Or worse.

The premises of the revolt (2011-2015)

During the Arab springs of 2011, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of many cities to express their anger against an (already) corrupt regime and deplorable living conditions. The movement was quickly and violently repressed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at the cost of dozens of people killed. Whereas the security situation seemed at all levels definitively restored, American troops left the country at the end of the year. Subsequently, the Sunni provinces experienced new episodes of protest, and the government’s responses were the same: a policing response. Enough to enhance the breeding ground for the growth of ISIS, and to explain that a part of the population will welcome it in 2014 as a liberator.

Despite the war, popular demonstrations against corruption, supported by part of the Shia clergy, broke out in Baghdad. In July 2015, they were mainly led by supporters of the thundering Muqtada al-Sadr. But in the south of the country, in Basra and Kerbala, it’s mainly the repeated power cuts that bring people onto the streets. To calm things down Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has been in office since 2014, merely promised reforms… that do not come. Iraqis’ anger boiled over once again from February to May 2016. The “Green Zone”, Baghdad’s ultra-secure perimeter hosting official buildings, was even briefly invaded, and the Parliament was occupied by Sadrist demonstrators. In February 2017, another attempt to occupy it ended this time in failure, four dead and dozens wounded. In front of the “Green Zone”, on the opposite bank of the Tigris, Tahrir Square becomes a symbolic place of protest. From now on, usually on Friday after the prayer, we can see handfuls of activists and protesters gathering, waving posters and holding meetings. But the epicenter of the proletarian revolt lies further south.

Venice adrift

The South-East province has a population of about five million, but its capital Basra alone has three to four million inhabitants. In theory, it is one of the wealthiest regions in the country (if not in the world), since nearly 80% of Iraqi oil is extracted from there (more than in neighboring Kuwait). The agglomeration is hosting a significant petrochemical activity and in its suburbs the only Iraqi ports overlooking the Persian Gulf, including the deep-water port of Umm Qasr (50 km further south). It is from this point, completely saturated, that commodities (including foodstuffs) enter Iraq and millions of barrels of oil are exported daily. Many foreign investors are present in the city (e.g. French or Italian shipping companies), and studies for new industrial and logistical infrastructures are not lacking. Nor indeed the pharaonic real estate projects that seem to be the most delirious: construction of five-star hotels, high-end residential units, shopping malls, business district with the world’s tallest tower (230 floors). To rival the likes of Dubai, as some expect. In the meantime, real economic activity brings millions of dollars a day to the Iraqi State, almost nothing to the region, and even less to its people.

The province of Basra has long been a major agricultural area, renowned for its date palm trees. The Shatt al-Arab estuary, which was a treasure of ecology wealth and developed a lush agriculture, has turned into an ecological hell, devastated by decades of war, laying concrete and industrial pollution – with an ad hoc incidence of cancer for its population. But worse, between the rise in sea level due to global warming and the decrease in river flow due to intensive irrigation (construction of dams in Turkey and Iran, wasteful use in Iraq), we are now witnessing an increasing salinization of land and groundwater.

A few weeds are scattered over the cracked piece of land. ‘In the past, everything was very green here. I used to grow vegetables, fodder for my animals, dates and apples.’ With his four hectares of land, his herd of about thirty sheep and his few cows, this farmer could earn up to 25 million dinars a year (about 20,000 €).‘But this year, I lost everything. Nothing will grow. I have three children to feed, so to survive, I sell my animals.’ Faced with the shortage of fresh water, this 60-year-old man must now fill their drinking troughs with water bottles.

Recently, the government had to ban crops that consume too much freshwater, such as maize and rice. This contributes, as do the expropriations of peasants for the extension of oil infrastructure, to a major rural exodus that feeds the slums and informal neighborhoods in the suburbs of Basra. The city’s population has increased by more than one million since 2003. The “pace of job creation” didn’t of course follow, and a third of the population now lives below the poverty line, i.e. on less than $2 a day.
The city’s majestic canals, which used to be called “the Venice of the Middle East”, now look like open sewers and floating dumpsites. Its inhabitants have little or no access to basic public services such as running water, electricity or waste management. In an attempt to overcome these problems, the governorate of Basra has directly signed agreements with neighboring countries. Kuwait thus supplies fuel to Iraqi power plants on a daily basis, but it is first of all out of fear of seeing waves of migrants crossing its border. Electricity supply from Iran is subject to risks such as American sanctions or payment difficulties. Saudi Arabia, which wants yet to counter Tehran’s influence, has so far made do with promises.

That does not mean that the inhabitants of Basra are resigned, but it is true that the region retains traces of a tradition of struggle, particularly trade unionist, and that in the past the influence of Marxist political movements was very important there. Iraqi political Shiism assimilated as many of those aspects as possible in the second half of the 20th century (to counter the communist influence), relying in particular on the pro-social justice veneer provided by this religion. An insurrection like in 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s regime remains almost mythical in many memories. The provincial capital is therefore not, understandably, renowned for its social stability, and demonstrations are a part of everyday life there.

The July riots / Electricity

Iraqi news in the summer of 2018 should been dominated by new political developments following the parliamentary elections in May. The result of this election, which saw a record abstention of more than 55%, was only a fragmented Parliament with no clear majority.

The Saairun coalition (literally “Forward” but also known as “Alliance Towards Reforms” or “Marching Towards Reform”), which could be described as populist and nationalist, obtained the highest percentage of the vote. It was an unprecedented alliance of Shia supporters of the sovereignist Muqtada al-Sadr and the modest Iraqi Communist Party (the latter, however, had only 2 deputies out of 54 elected of the coalition).
In the second place there is the Fatah Alliance (Conquest Alliance); Orthodox Shia and politically inspired by the Iranian model. The party it is led by Hadi al-Amiri; political branch of the PMU [Popular Mobilization Units] and it derives its legitimacy from its active participation in the fight against ISIS.

The party of Prime Minister al-Abadi, the Islamic Dawa Party, is only in the third place.
If, a priori, it seems hard to reconcile one political bloc with another, at least two of them must join their forces in order to appoint a Prime Minister and share the power. This is particularly complex since they must respect ethno-confessional quotas in the distribution of posts and, finally, upset neither Tehran nor Washington. It is after a month of spectacular negotiations and reversals that the first step is over: an agreement to form a government has finally been reached between Haider al-Abadi and Muqtada al-Sadr.

But while politicians in the air-conditioned palaces of the “Green Zone” are now feverishly fighting for the allocation of ministries, Basra’s inhabitants are facing the most serious water crisis in Iraq, as well as frightening heat waves. With temperatures above 50°C, fans, air conditioners and refrigerators become more than essential. But for that you need electricity. And now on July 6th, due to unpaid bills, Iran is simply closing several power lines, including the one that supplies Basra. The proletarians, noting that Shia solidarity has limits, are forced to use their age-old, costly and polluting generators. As for the Iraqi authorities, they find no other solution than to ask the inhabitants… to save energy.

Two days later, on Sunday, July 8th, a demonstration of a quite common kind took place on the outskirts of Basra: a few dozen people blocked a road leading to the West Qurna-2 oil field (operated by the Russian company Lukoil) and West Qurna-1 oil field (operated by ExxonMobil), thus preventing employees from accessing the sites. They hoped to get some hires in this way, but the situation had escalated, and a demonstrator was shot dead by the police. At that moment, no one knows that this event will set off the powder keg.

It seems that initially the local tribal sheikhs sought justice and reparation, and then they received support from other tribes. Demonstrations resume the following Tuesday. The next day, protesters attempted to enter oil installations near Basra, they clashed with security forces and set fire to buildings at the site entrance. The tension is such that foreign oil companies are ordering the evacuation of their executives.
Over the next two days, demonstrations took place in several cities in the south of the country (Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf, Samawa and Karbala) and even in Baghdad. In many cases, protesters were trying to block economically strategic roads, linking for instance oil fields, border crossings (to prevent the passage of trucks), airports and the port of Umm Qasr. Official buildings were occupied. In several cities there were clashes with the police and injuries.

On Friday 13th, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi travelled to Basra, where he met with military, political, tribal and economic leaders and tried to calm the population by announcing (without further explanation) that he would release “the necessary funds” for the city. During the Friday sermon, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, faithful to his lukewarm balancing, supported the demonstrators, but asked them to avoid disorder and destruction. However, at nightfall, riots broke out in several cities. The protesters, although very respectful of their cleric, chose to ignore his recommendations and, on the contrary, targeted official buildings, offices of political parties and militias (except Sadrist organizations), and sometimes even tried to set them on fire. Fighting with the police raged all night long. Eight demonstrators were killed. Throughout the following week, these demonstrations were repeated and extended to other provinces in the south of the country.

What do these demonstrators want? Above all, water, electricity, better public services and jobs. A 25-year-old man, a graduate of the University of Basra, says: “We want jobs, we want to drink clean water, and electricity. We want to be treated like human beings and not animals.” Another man, a 29-year-old employee, says, “People are hungry and live without water and electricity. Our demands are simple: more jobs, desalination structures and the construction of power plants.” To these basic material demands, the demonstrators add a vague but virulent denunciation of corruption and all those “thieves” who rule the country. Slogans a little more explicitly political also appear, such as “The people want the regime to fall!
Throughout the week, the anger that is expressed also took on sovereignist tones, and the demonstrators then also shouted out: “Iran out! Free Baghdad!” The Shia parties, which have been in power for years, are indeed associated with Iran and its far-reaching impact on the country. The symbols of the Islamic Republic (very present in the south of the country) served as outlets for the rioters’ rage: for example, banners and panels in tribute to Khomeini (the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran) were set on fire.

Who are these demonstrators? First of all, they are exclusively men; especially young (sometimes very young), poor proletarians and unemployed, including young graduates (those under 35 representing 70% of the population). Demonstrations are quite spontaneous, they do not respond to the call of any party or trade union, no leader emerges from them. And even if locally rallies can be initiated by militants or tribal sheikhs, they quickly become uncontrollable. At first, the mobilization seems to concern only the Shias (who anyway represent 60% of the population), the regions of the country and the neighborhoods of the capital where they are in the majority. But it soon becomes clear that the mobilization actually goes beyond community divisions, that Sunnis participate in it, and that some mixed regions are in turn affected.

From the beginning, the anger of the demonstrators targeted the political elite and its symbols, and the seats of the authorities such as governorates, town halls or courthouses; the offices of political parties were regularly attacked, ransacked and burned down. These young proletarians use violence quite “naturally”, spontaneously and impulsively. This can easily be explained by the harshness of Iraqi daily life, by the “brutalization” that years of war have caused society to suffer (in the sense of George L. Mosse), but also by a popular culture that trivializes violence. The Iraqi government prefers to denounce the presence of “vandals” infiltrated into the processions. However, this immoderate use of violence seems to be spreading or at least to be accepted by other categories of demonstrators, as the journalist Hélène Sallon points out: “This willingness to violence was later shared by many demonstrators. People who were not necessarily from this angry and very young generation told me: Well yes, because we don’t have any other choice, they don’t listen to us, they only make promises on promises. And so, at some point, yes, why not violence.” How would it be without the constant calls for moderation from political and religious authorities?

The journalist nevertheless notes a weaker mobilization in Baghdad, perhaps because of the impact Muqtada al-Sadr has there on a portion of the proletariat, but undoubtedly also because of a gap between militants and young proletarians who take to the streets: “In Baghdad, we see that this movement too was not a great success, because I have the impression that the protest there is much more politicized, in line with parties, and anyway we have seen in the demonstrations this summer some divergences between these long-time activists, more politicized and more attached to parties, and this new generation that they could not understand and whose intentions they were not sure of. We have seen a greater difficulty in Baghdad for the movement to make a mix, rather than in Basra or Najaf, where socio-economic reasons are shared by all.

The authorities, overwhelmed, react in urgency and disorder, becoming only gradually aware of the extent of the revolt. For them, it is primarily a matter of limiting the destruction, hence the introduction of a night curfew and the deployment of riot police using tear gas and water cannons. But, quickly, the army must contribute to protection of the oil facilities in which protesters regularly threaten to enter. In order to limit mobilization, the Internet is interrupted several times throughout the country, sometimes for several days; total cuts or, sometimes, only targeting social networks.
Prime Minister al-Abadi publicly adopts a conciliatory position towards the demonstrators, he claimed to have understood their legitimate demands, and he asserts that he wants to protect the right to demonstrate (peacefully). He also pledges to accelerate water and electricity projects in the South; he invites tribal leaders’ delegations to come and meet him, and he announces an immediate allocation of $3 billion for the Basra region. He can hardly count on the support of his ally Muqtada al-Sadr. Although now with one foot in the “Green Zone”, the latter hopes, as usual, surfing the protest without actually calling his supporters to take to the streets. The fearless Shia leader does not hesitate to use the Twitter’s hashtag “the hunger revolution wins”. Cautiously, he asks demonstrators to show restraint and not to attack public buildings. After more than eight days of demonstrations and probably much hesitation, believing that the movement will continue, he calls on his deputies to suspend negotiations on the formation of a new government until the demonstrators’ demands are met.

The day of July 20th appears to be a turning point. It seems that, in front of the police and military forces heavily deployed in the southern provinces and in the capital, the demonstrators avoided confrontation and gather in the main public squares. In Baghdad, several thousand demonstrators were nevertheless trying to approach the “Green Zone”, but the police pushed them back. The demonstrations, which have become much less violent, continue until Sunday 22nd. It is at this moment that the movement ends, after fourteen days of demonstrations throughout the south of the country, including at least eight days of riots. The repression killed 11 people, most of them shot dead. Such mobilization, violence and repression appear to be unprecedented in Iraq.

September riots / Water

One might think that after such uprising the government would be able to enjoy a soothing respite, but that’s not the case. Everything starts again in Basra, this time because of the water. Due to the deplorable health and meteorological conditions, the water distributed by the authorities has proven to be, from August onwards, much more salty and polluted than usual. In a few weeks, its consumption even causes intoxication and hospitalization of more than 30,000 people.

As always, the government responds by going through the motions, imagining that the suspension of the Minister of Electricity and a few officials will be enough to calm the confrontation and will allow the “Green Zone” to resume its picturesque daily course. However, on Sunday, September 2nd, hundreds of demonstrators blocked various strategic points in Basra province. The next day, in Baghdad, the inaugural meeting of the parliament elected in May was held. The alliance between Muqtada al-Sadr and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the one hand, and that of the leader of the pro-Iranian militias, Hadi al-Amiri, and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the other, are tearing each other apart. But they failed to elect a Speaker of the Council of Representatives.

On Tuesday, several thousand people gather in Basra to protest against the authorities’ negligence. The police shot into the air and used tear gas to disperse them, clashes broke out. At the end of the day, six people were killed. There are even more protesters on Wednesday. On Thursday (September 6th), access to the port of Umm Qasr was blocked by demonstrators and, in the evening, in Basra, rioters attacked public buildings and political parties’ headquarters. They even tried to attack the Iranian consulate, but they were repelled by the security forces. Fearing that demonstrations may be triggered after the Friday prayer (which takes place at noon), the authorities deploy numerous police forces to Basra and set up a curfew in the city from 4 p.m. But if during the day protesters try to enter one of the oil sites near the city, and others block Umm Qasr’s access again, it is at nightfall that the situation escalates. Residents gathered on the streets and, in ever-increasing numbers, they quickly attacked government buildings, party and militia premises, the regional governor’s offices and residence, and they burned down everything that might be. What makes a whole lot of noise, including at the international level, is that the Iranian consulate is stormed for the second time and that, this time, it went up in smoke. During the night, three more demonstrators were shot dead by the police.

The following day, Saturday, September 8th, is particularly calm in comparison. The port of Umm Qasr resumes its activities, and the police watch. Some activists claiming to be “organizers” of the protests denounce the destruction of the previous day and announce that they are stopping the movement. The curfew was finally lifted in the evening. It should be noted that, for the first time, the commander of the PMU declares that his troops are ready to deploy in the streets of Basra to ensure security and protect peaceful demonstrators against agents provocateurs.
The government is once again promising to release funds (without giving any amount or timetable), although no one has yet seen the shadow of the $3 billion promised in July. On the same day, Parliament met in an emergency session in order to discuss the crisis in Basra, but part of the assembly, including the Fatah Alliance (political wing of the PMU), called for the resignation of Prime Minister al-Abadi. But, in a dramatic turn of events, this call was echoed by Muqtada al-Sadr, an ally of al-Abadi until then! The sovereignist leader thus suggests an alliance with the pro-Iranian bloc. This turnaround was facilitated by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s highly critical stance towards the Prime Minister. He was finally forced to throw in the towel, and Adel Abdel Mahdi, a former oil minister, was appointed to succeed him (he did not take office until October 25th, 2018). The situation is still somewhat confusing but, while some denounce the recent riots as the result of a plot aimed at countering Iranian influence, it seems paradoxically that the pro-Iranian bloc will be strengthened as a result.

Nothing that a priori could satisfy the protesters, of whom, in less than a week, thirteen were killed and dozens more wounded. Nothing that would indicate an improvement in their material living conditions. However, the demonstrations did not resume, calm returned, and daily life is getting back to normal in Basra and Baghdad. For how long? Everyone is waiting for the next explosion and remains on guard.
But no one’s realized yet that it will take about a year to see the Iraqi proletarians once again taking to the streets, equipped with their incendiary anger.

Tristan Leoni, November 2019

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