How political forces fueled the spread of Iraq protests

iraqi security forces clash with protesters this week in front of the governor’s building in Basra province as anger erupts over the lack of basic services and frequent power outages. (Getty Images)
Updated 17 July 2018

How political forces fueled the spread of Iraq protests

  • Regional and local players blamed for spreading violent demonstrations across southern provinces
  • Analysts say that Iran has the most to gain from disrupting oil supplies from Iraq

BAGHDAD: Regional and local players have been blamed for spreading violent protests across southern provinces

Demonstrations that have spread through Iraq’s southern provinces against the lack of basic services, poverty and unemployment have been driven by multiple local and regional players to achieve their own political goals.

In the oil hub of Basra, where hundreds of foreign and Arab oil companies operate, the protesters called for jobs. In Najaf, they demanded an end to corruption, while in Sammawa, Ammara and Dhi Qar, demonstrations called for clean drinking water and regular electricity.

The protests, which entered a second week on Monday, started in Basra city with gatherings outside provincial government buildings and the blocking of roads to key oil fields.

But they escalated and turned increasingly violent over the weekend after large groups stormed oil sites in northern Basra and set fire to a number of government buildings in Nasiriyah, Amara and Diwaniya. 

On Friday, a mob stormed Iraq’s fourth busiest airport in Najaf and burned several headquarters belonging to some of the Shiite political forces.

In the nine days of unrest, eight protesters have been killed and hundreds wounded, half of whom were policemen, medics and security, sources told Arab News.

Iraqi security services arrested dozens of organizers of the demonstrations over the past two days to interrogate them “in an attempt to get an idea about the parties that guide the demonstrations and incited the demonstrators to attack and vandalize public facilities,” a security official told Arab News.


An intelligence official said that while the protests may have started organically, they have since been hijacked for political gain.

“No one denies that the services situation in Iraq is catastrophic and that the citizens suffer from a severe shortage of water and electricity at temperatures above 50C throughout the summer. This was the first spark that ignited these demonstrations,” the intelligence official told Arab News.

“But, later many local and regional sides have ridden the wave (of demonstrations).

“All I can reveal now is that a regional player was behind the demonstrations in Basra, but the rest were (stirred by) local players.”

While the official declined to name a regional player specifically, analysts said that Iran has the most to gain from disrupting oil supplies from Iraq.

Tehran, which wields significant influence in Iraq, particularly through paramilitary groups, faces suffocating economic sanctions imposed by the US administration after Donald Trump pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal. The US has ordered all countries to stop buying Iranian oil from November.

Oil from Saudi Arabia and Iraq would be the main sources to compensate for the shortfall faced by the global oil markets.

“If you know who will be the beneficiary of stopping the export of Iraqi oil, you will know the regional player (behind the demonstrations in Basra),” the intelligent official said.

Rahman Al-Joubori, an Iraqi analyst based in Washington, told Arab News that Iran was sending a message to the international community.

“The message says that the Iraqi oil sector is not secure and you cannot rely on it,” he said.


In Najaf, one of Iraq’s holiest cities and a center for pilgrimage, the story is different. Demonstrators stormed the air- powas responsible. Najaf airport, which opened in July 2008, is run by senior leaders of the Islamic Dawa Party.

Many complaints have been filed to Iraq’s Integrity Commission and the related government bodies suggesting the airport managers are corrupt and have not delivered the incomes of the airport to the government treasury.

The Iraqi cabinet led by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, a Dawa member, last year issued a decision to dissolve the airport’s board and hand it over to the Civil Aviation Au- thority, but the directors refused to respond.

“The leaders of Dawa Party who do not benefit from the airport incomes have incited their followers against the leaders of Dawa Party who run the airport,” the Shiite leader said. “It is an internal fight,” he said, adding that Al-Abadi, was not involved in the protest and has been desperately trying to calm tensions.


The election

As the demonstrators left the airport, hundreds of others attacked and burned the headquarters of the most prominent paramilitary Shiite groups Najaf and Ammara. Buildings housing the Badr Organization, As-saib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Huzballah were all attacked.

Several security and political sources said that the followers of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr were behind the action.

Al-Sadr has emerged as kingmaker in Iraq since preliminary results of the May election showed that his alliance had won first place. He has been leading negotiations to form the biggest parliamentary bloc, which could then form a government.

His pro-Iranian arch Shiite rivals, who ran in the election under the Al-Fattah list, won second place and have been trying to block his way.

Fattah includes members of the Iran-backed paramilitaries, includ- ing Badr Organization and Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.

“We know that Sadrists (the followers of Al-Sadr) were behind the burning of our offices. It was an action and a reaction,” a senior Fattah leader told Arab News.

“Our guys (Badr, Assaib and Kattaib Huzballah) have set fire to the street in Basra and other provinces.”


High alert

Iraqi security forces are on high alert as more demonstrations are expected across the south of the country. Most foreign companies evacuated its senior staff from oil facilities in Basra province.

The demonstrators on Monday gathered in Al-Burjisiya town, southwestern Basra, threatening to attack the nearby giant pipeline that carries oil to the loading platforms for export. It marks a significant escalation compared to when the protests started on July 8 in Basra with a group of youths at the entrance of a foreign oil company in West Qurna — home of the biggest oil fields in Iraq.

The demonstrators had blocked the main road leading to the field and prevented employees of the compa- ny from reaching their work sites for two days. Police opened fire to dis-perse the demonstrators. A protester was killed and another three were wounded.

Bani Mansour, the tribe of the killed protester, asked the security forces to hand over the policemen responsible, but the government refused — sparking more anger.

By Wednesday, the 13 main Basra tribes said that they were backing the Bani Mansour and vowed “to paralyze” the oil companies.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Basra. All roads leading to the oil companies and fields were blocked either by protesters, dirt barriers or burning tires. 

Although the Iraqi government sought to absorb the anger and sent them a ministerial committee to negotiate with them, the situation rapidly deteriorated and the demonstrators started attacking the sites of oil companies and stormed the headquarters of the government owned-Basra Oil Company and the Russian power giant Lukoil Company.

On Saturday, Al-Abadi, who led the country through one of its many dark chapters with the defeat of Daesh, offered $3 billion in investment in the province.

But it is hard to see how money alone will appease the anger which is being fueled by increasingly complex political forces.

Trump: Turkey making ‘terrible mistake’

Turkish government officials did not comment on Trump’s remarks when they spoke after prayers to mark the start of the festival. (AFP)
Updated 15 min 58 sec ago

Trump: Turkey making ‘terrible mistake’

ISTANBUL: The lira weakened against the dollar on Tuesday after US President Donald Trump said he would give Turkey no concessions in return for the release of a detained American pastor, the latest salvo in a worsening rift between the NATO allies.
In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Trump criticized Ankara over the detention of the evangelical Christian pastor, Andrew Brunson, and said he was not concerned that his tough stance against Turkey could end up hurting European and emerging market economies.
Brunson, who is originally from North Carolina and has lived in Turkey for two decades, has been detained for 21 months on terrorism charges, which he denies. The pastor has become an unwitting flashpoint for the diplomatic tension, which has accelerated the crisis in the lira.
Trump said that, after he helped persuade Israel to free a detained Turkish citizen, he thought Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would then release Brunson.
“I think they’re making a terrible mistake. There will be no concessions,” Trump said.
The lira weakened to 6.0925 against the US currency by 1111 GMT, from a close of 6.0865 on Monday, when Turkish markets began a holiday to mark the Muslim Eid Al-Adha festival that continues for the rest of this week.
Trade was thinner than usual and probably mainly offshore, with local markets closed for the holiday. The currency has lost 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year. However, selling on Tuesday was limited due to a broadly weaker dollar.
Turkish government officials did not comment on Trump’s remarks when they spoke after prayers to mark the start of the festival.
Devlet Bahceli, leader of a nationalist party allied with Erdogan’s AK Party, told reporters: “We have no business with those who love Brunson more than us.”

Prayers and gifts
Erdogan, who had been expected to speak to reporters after morning prayers, made no public statement.
He has repeatedly cast the currency crisis as an attack on Turkey but has stopped short of singling out any one country.
He prayed on Tuesday morning at a mosque near the tourist resort of Marmaris on the south coast and then handed out gifts to local children, the Milliyet newspaper reported.
He also spoke by phone to soldiers stationed near the border with Iraq, sending them greetings for Eid Al-Adha.
“I believe that as long as you stand tall our flag will not fall, our call to prayer will not fall silent and this homeland of ours will not be divided,” the Hurriyet newspaper reported him as saying.
On Monday, he appealed to Turks’ religious and patriotic feelings ahead of the holiday, promising they would not be brought “to their knees” by the economic crisis.
Turkey has demanded that the US hand over Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in the US and who Ankara says orchestrated a failed coup attempt, but Washington has balked at this.
A Turkish court last week rejected Brunson’s appeal for release, drawing a stiff rebuke from Trump. The US president — who counts evangelical Christians among his core supporters — has said he would double previously announced tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports.
On Monday Turkey initiated a dispute complaint with the World Trade Organization over the tariffs.
Separately, ratings agency Fitch said on Tuesday that tight liquidity amplified risks for Turkish companies.
Another ratings agency, DBRS, said European banks with Turkey exposure face a manageable capital impact.
Underlining the increased diplomatic tensions between Turkey and the US, the US Embassy in Ankara came under gunfire on Monday. Nobody was injured and Turkish authorities later detained two men over the incident.