Who really sparked the turmoil in Basra?
First, let us ask: Who is the most likely beneficiary of the sabotage of security in Basra? In response to Iranian finger-pointing, the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have no interest in such an action and nothing to gain.
In addition to being a neighboring border province whose security is directly linked to the security of the Gulf, Basra is an oil-producing area. If chaos erupts there and disrupts production, prices would rise, which is against the policy of those countries seeking to stabilize prices. The Americans, too, would be hurt if chaos led to a rise in oil prices, as their economy would also be affected.
Thus, the only realistic suspect is the Iranian government, which openly declares that it wants prices to rise to record levels so that chaos will engulf the world’s oil markets. Iran, in fact, sees a price rise as a “weapon of pressure” that could force the West to allow it to export oil and negotiate with it on Tehran’s own terms. Moreover, Iraqi oil companies last month signed a major contract with American oil company Chevron to develop oilfields in Basra Province, provoking anger from Tehran.
Had everyone not been preoccupied with Syria, in particular the situation in Idlib and the big upcoming battle there, Basra — both the city and the province — would have been a focal point of the world’s attention. Twelve of the city’s residents were killed because they protested against the conditions there, including the poor water supply and high pollution. The protests were a natural progression because the people there have been complaining for years about the chaos, the proliferation of militias, the violence and unemployment. Now the water supply joins the list because it is no longer suitable even for animal consumption as it is too salty. To make matters even worse, the residents of Basra have suffered through a summer under terrible heat with little relief as a result of power cuts.
The recent protests, which were harshly and badly dealt with, resulted in the protesters turning against the Iraqi militias affiliated with Iran. They burned down the headquarters of political parties and even targeted the Iranian consulate, which has become, in the eyes of the people of Basra, a symbol of all that is evil in their province. They believe that the water crisis is a result of the siphoning off of shared water from marshlands and border areas until it became scarce and unsuitable for human consumption. Why target the consulate? It is because Iran’s official presence in Basra is much more conspicuous than it is in the rest of Iraq.
The only realistic suspect is the Iranian government, which openly declares that it wants prices to rise to record levels so that chaos will engulf the world’s oil markets
Salty and polluted water caused the simmering anger of the people, who were already dissatisfied with Iraqi religious political parties and Iran, to boil over. Hostility toward these two targets, especially in Basra, is nothing new. The second-most important city in Iraq, it carried these parties on its shoulders to the government and in return was promised, more than anything else, a better future. But, since the Americans left, the situation in Basra has worsened. Water is just the final straw on a mountain of complaints. The people of Basra have been angered by Iranian militias that turned the city into their own private estate, controlling it with iron and fire.
Basra, where the plains of Mesopotamia end, was until recently the main producer of rice, millet and wheat for the entire region in southern Iraq — but now its people cannot drink from their own water sources as a result of water transfers.
Poor water supplies, like other badly managed services, are a problem in Iraq as a whole, not only Basra. However, because the province is the government’s “purse,” and is home to the country’s only port, the chaos has scared the government, which is afraid that it might become like the “oil crescent” in Libya that brought chaos and war to all parts of that country. It has also alarmed Iraq’s neighbors, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Rather than exchanging blame and accusations, the Iraqi government must move into Basra Province and free it from the militias, their weapons and Iranian interventions.
We know that Iran will resist all attempts to remove it from Basra but, given the chaos and protests, the authorities have no option other than to end the old situation and turn the city and the province into a region that provides not only oil to Baghdad, but also stability.
- Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed