In Iraq’s oil-rich Basra, shanty towns flourish

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At least 18 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, with rates even higher among college graduates. Above, Iraqi boys on a trailer in Al-Zubair, south of Basra. (AFP)
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Basra authorities say they lose money every time a home is built illegally, as Baghdad bases provincial budgets on the number of officially registered residents. (AFP)
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Many internal refugees displaced by Daesh fled to Basra, untouched by the militant takeover, often finding homes in shanty towns. (AFP)
Updated 19 April 2018
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In Iraq’s oil-rich Basra, shanty towns flourish

  • Iraq’s oil sector accounts for 65 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but only one percent of its labor force
  • Nearly 10 percent of Iraqis live in informal settlements, one fifth of them in Basra, according to the ministry of planning

BASRA, Iraq: From his small home nestled alongside train tracks in the southern Iraqi province of Basra, Sultan Nayef looks out at plumes of smoke billowing across an expanse of oil fields.
Like thousands of others, the unemployed 25-year-old moved to oil-rich Basra in the hope of finding work in the energy industry, Iraq’s primary source of wealth.
Instead, he and many others like him live in cramped and chaotic shanty towns in a province already suffering from a lack of infrastructure.
Absent of any urban planning or public services, Basra’s informal settlements are an anarchic clutter of breeze-block homes and ad-hoc electricity wires.
“All we get from oil is pollution,” said Sultan who, along with his four brothers, still relies on his parents for living expenses.
A small stone wall is the only thing keeping cows and sheep grazing in a grassy field behind him from wandering into oil fields where burning gas flares emit thick black smoke.
Most of the young people arriving in Iraq’s only coastal oil province hoped to secure high-paying jobs with foreign companies.
“But most companies import their employees from abroad,” said Nayef, a resident of the Zoubeir district south of Basra city.
At least 18 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, with rates even higher among college graduates.
According to the UN, Iraq’s oil sector accounts for 65 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but only one percent of its labor force.
Even for those who work, buying a home is often only a dream.
“My husband is a civil servant, but with his salary we can’t even buy a centimeter of land,” said Umm Ahmed.
Even though they are against “the idea of squatting,” she and her family were forced to build a makeshift home on government land.
The municipality has already destroyed their home once.
“We had to completely rebuild it,” the 48-year-old said, her face framed by a long black veil.
Local authorities say the land belongs to the state, denouncing the illegal structures and the theft of water and electricity.
The last study on Basra’s informal settlements was completed in 2014, just a few months before the Daesh group swept across Iraq seizing nearly a third of the country.
At the time, there were more than 48,500 informal homes in the province, said Zahra Al-Jebari, head of urban planning at Basra’s provincial council.
Today “there are many more, but there is no figure,” she said.
Many internal refugees displaced by Daesh fled to Basra, untouched by the militant takeover, often finding homes in shanty towns.
Nearly 10 percent of Iraqis live in informal settlements, one fifth of them in Basra, according to the ministry of planning.
The only other province hit harder by illegal construction is Baghdad.
Basra authorities say they lose money every time a home is built illegally, as Baghdad bases provincial budgets on the number of officially registered residents.
Taxes in informal settlements are also left unpaid, said Jebari, adding the budget deficit was acutely felt in “allocations to education, health and other services.”
For Wissam Maher, it feels like authorities are “only interested in destroying our homes.”
“We live under power lines without any services,” said the 32-year-old metal worker.
“This area is huge and it doesn’t belong to anyone,” he said, pointing down a narrow sandy street lined with ramshackle houses and abandoned cars.


A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

Updated 10 December 2018
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A year after Daesh defeat, Iraq in throes of political crisis

  • Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition
  • The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government

BAGHDAD: A year since Iraq announced “victory” over the Daesh group, the country finds itself in the throes of political and economic crises left unresolved during the long battle against militants.
Unified against the common menace of Daesh, Iraq’s political elites are now at loggerheads over the drawn-out formation of a cabinet as the threat of renewed popular protests looms.
Iraq is no stranger to instability. It fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, then a conflict over Kuwait followed by a crippling international embargo and the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
A sectarian war ensued, capped in 2014 by Daesh’s devastating sweep across a third of the country.
Backed by a US-led international coalition, Iraqi troops and paramilitary forces battled the militants for three years, until Baghdad finally declared it had won in December 2017.
After decades of nearly back-to-back wars, Iraq’s decision-makers are now forced to face deep-rooted dilemmas left festering for years.
“In Iraq you’ve seen many ‘missions accomplished’,” said Renad Mansour, senior fellow at Chatham House in London.
“But as usual, the much more challenging victory is the political victory — which has always been left for another day.”
Five months after Baghdad declared its win, the country held legislative elections that did not produce a clear governing coalition.
Then-prime minister Haider Al-Abadi failed to hold on to his position despite claiming credit for victory, as people turned to populist parties who tapped anger over corruption.
The ongoing power struggle among various parties has stymied efforts by new premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, widely seen as a weak consensus candidate, to form a government.

In October, Abdel Mahdi managed to fill 14 of the cabinet’s 22 posts, but repeated efforts to hold a parliamentary vote on the remaining eight, including the key interior and defense ministries, have failed.
“The distribution of power, the race to acquire as many government positions as possible under the guise of real competition between parties — that is at the root of the problem,” Iraqi political analyst Jassem Hanoun told AFP.
“Iraq is still living in a transition period, without political stability or a clear administrative vision for the country.”
As the process drags on, observers have wondered whether Abdel Mahdi could step down, further destabilising a country just getting back on its feet.
“Withdrawal is an option,” a source close to the government said, adding that Abdel Mahdi “has his resignation letter in his back pocket.”
“Only if the political situation gets significantly worse can I see him taking it out of his pocket and using it,” the source said.
But the thorny issues facing Iraq extend beyond the capital.
Much of the country remains in ruins after three years of ferocious fighting, including large swathes of one-time Daesh capital Mosul and the northern Sinjar region.
An international summit in Kuwait in February gathered around $30 billion in pledges for Iraq’s reconstruction — less than a third of what Baghdad hoped to receive.
More than 1.8 million Iraqis are still displaced, many languishing in camps, and 8 million require humanitarian aid, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“If this is what ‘victory’ looks like, then there is little to celebrate for millions of Iraqis still haunted by the crimes of the IS and the long war to eliminate it,” said NRC’s head Jan Egeland.

Violence has dropped across Iraq, according to the United Nations, which recorded the lowest casualty figures in six years in November with 41 civilians killed.
But the threat of hit-and-run attacks lingers.
A recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that while the total number of Daesh attacks in Iraq had dropped in 2018, those against government targets had increased compared to 2017.
Observers are also worried that the bitter squabbles among Iraqi’s political forces could turn violent.
“Because of the divisions among the parties, anything is possible,” Hanoun said.
One scenario would be a conflict among the country’s competing Shiite Muslim factions, which he said would be a “disaster.”
But another major fault line divides Iraq’s entrenched politicians and an increasingly frustrated public.
Deadly protests in the summer of 2017 saw tens of thousands turn out over unemployment, a lack of public services, and accusations of corruption.
Rampant power cuts mean millions of Iraqis have just a few hours of state-provided electricity per day. The country is ranked the 12th most corrupt in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.
Protest leaders have threatened a return to the streets if these issues, as well as the political stalemate, are not resolved.
“There’s certainly a conflict within the Shiite camp, but the biggest conflict will be between the people and the whole system,” said Mansour.
“Summertime will be a test for Abdel Mahdi.”