Iraq protests threaten to ‘paralyze’ oil industry in Basra

Basra produces most of Iraq's oil but local tribes are angry at the lack of jobs made available to them. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 11 July 2018

Iraq protests threaten to ‘paralyze’ oil industry in Basra

  • Tribesmen demand oil companies give jobs to locals
  • Main road to West Qurna oil fields blocked by protesters

BAGHDAD: Thousands of protesting tribesmen in southern Iraq have threatened to “paralyze” oil production if the hundreds of companies running the oil fields fail to employ them.

Tensions in Basra escalated after police opened fire to disperse protesters who had blocked the road leading to West Qurna, home of the largest oil fields in Iraq, on Sunday.

One demonstrator was killed and three wounded, medics and police said.

Security has been stepped up and international oil companies have moved senior staff members amid fears that the protests could escalate into rioting.

Several influential tribes, including Albu-Mansour, the tribe of the protester who died, demanded police hand over the officer who fired the fatal shot, and the commander who ordered him to shoot, or to prosecute them.

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READ MORE: Oil firms’ multimillion-dollar bribery racket bringing death to the streets of Iraq’s Basra

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As the Tuesday deadline approached, thousands more tribesmen joined the protest to block the road. Most oil company employees operating in West Qurna were not able to reach their work, sources told Arab News.

On Tuesday tribal leaders in Basra called on the oil companies to dismiss all staff not born in the area, including foreigners and Iraqis, and replace them with young workers from Basra.

Iraqi security forces in the city have been on high alert and dozens of additional troops have been deployed in the region “to control the consequences,” a police officer told Arab News.

The protesters have been demanding that at least 80 percent of the jobs offered by the oil companies should be guaranteed to the people of Basra. They are also calling for improvements to basic services in the city, such as the water supply which has become highly saline in recent years due to a drop in river levels.

“We want to force the government to listen to our demands and respond to them,” one of the demonstration organizers told Arab News. “We will paralyze the movement of oil companies.”

 

 The organizer added that the oil companies are like “the hand that hurts the government, so we will twist it.”

In Basra about 800 foreign, Arab and local companies have Iraqi government approval to work in the oil sector.

Most of the companies have had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, commissions and compensation tribal heads who dominate local government in the province.

In April, Arab News reported how the murky web of bribes and corruption was fueling a surge in violence on Basra’s streets.

Villagers living near the oil fields do not see any of the compensation paid by the government and oil companies to the influential local sheikhs of their tribes.

Anger often boils over with demonstrations and road blocks near the oil fields, forcing the companies to offer concessions including jobs as guards or drivers.

“Those youth (the demonstrators) believe that they deserve to work in these companies more than others who come from other areas or provinces,” Sheikh Ra’ad Al-Furaiji, the head of the Tribal Council in Basra, told Arab News.

“They are very poor, uneducated and have no chance of getting jobs, but they have families that must be fed.




Security has been bolstered around the oil fields with some fearing the protests could become riots. (File photo: AFP)

“They have been watching their peers who come from other areas and provinces to work in their lands and hearing about the privileges that they have enjoyed, so they are very upset.”

Devastated by three decades of conflicts, Iraq suffers from rampant corruption and a lack of strategic development policies, particularly in the provinces.

Despite its vast oil reserves, many Iraqis suffer from a lack of basic services, including clean drinking water and electricity, as well as widespread poverty and high unemployment. 

Matters worsened as a result of the large fiscal deficit that the Iraqi government faced in 2014 as a result of the sharp drop in global oil prices and the high cost of the war with Daesh.

Basra, the backbone of the oil-dependent Iraqi economy, suffers from some of the worst basic services, despite producing 3.5 million barrels of oil per day — roughly 70 percent of Iraq’s national output.

Sunday’s demonstration was initially sparked by widespread electricity shortages in the south after Iran suspended a supply line. The move was to put pressure on the Iraqi government over payments which have become more difficult because of US sanctions against Tehran. 

But the protests quickly turned into demonstrations in attempt to force the oil companies into providing jobs for locals.

“The government has to revise its contracts with them (the oil companies) to force them to provide jobs and services for the local communities,” Sheikh Ya’arab Al-Mohammadawi, the chairman of the Dispute Resolution Committee in Basra Provincial Council, told Arab News. 

“These companies have turned out to be a tool to boost the disagreements and conflicts between the tribes because of the compensation payments.”

Senior foreign employees of Exxon Mobile, PetroChina and Lukoil have been moved from the West Qurna fields to Rumaila further south “as riots are expected to break out at any minute,” officials working close to the oil companies told Arab News.

Protesters also set up pavilions outside local government buildings in Medaina, in northern Basra.

Sheikh Dhurgham Al-Maliki, head of Bani Malik tribe, one of the most influential in Basra, said Iraq’s leaders had underestimated Basra and its people.

“The government knows the strength of the tribes of Basra and their courage. If things get out of control, everything will be burned.”

FASTFACTS

Oil price

Basra produces 3.5 million barrels of oil per day


Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

As strikes resume in Iraq, anti-government protesters stand on a concrete wall set up by security forces in Al-Rashid district in Baghdad on Sunday. (AP)
Updated 32 min 25 sec ago

Iraqi grand ayatollah: I support the people, and they want change

  • Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs and its involvement in crackdown on protesters angers Ali Sistani

BAGHDAD: A senior adviser to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has told Arab News that he does not support the continuation of the government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and that the existing political forces did not press for early parliamentary elections with a new election law and an electoral commission. Baghdad and nine southern Shiite-dominated provinces have endured mass demonstrations against the government since Oct. 1.

More than 300 demonstrators have been killed and 15,000 others have been injured, mostly in Baghdad, due to bloody crackdowns led by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iranian-backed allies.
Al-Sistani is the leader of the world’s Shiite community and the most influential cleric in Iraq and has been the godfather of the political process since 2003. No government or prime minister can survive without Al-Sistani’s support and blessing.
Protesters, initially protesting against corruption, unemployment and lack of daily basic services, were brutally repressed in the first week of October by Abdul Mahdi’s government and his Iran-backed allies, killing more than 147 demonstrators and wounding more than 6,000 others with live ammunition and tear gas canisters, which stopped demonstrations for two weeks.
But demonstrations resumed on Oct. 25 after Al-Sistani announced his support and the Iraqi government vowed not to use live ammunition.
The return of the protests was accompanied by increasing demands to overthrow Abdul Mahdi’s government and the holding of early national parliamentary elections preceded by the change of the election law and the electoral commission.
Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of Abdul Mahdi or early elections.

PM’s survival
The prime minister’s allies insist on his survival, accompanied by a significant increase in killings, kidnappings and arrests of activists and journalists, with the promotion of news that they have an agreement with Al-Sistani that allows the continuation of Abdul Mahdi’s government, new ministerial and constitutional amendments and a set of important laws, without holding early elections.
Al-Sistani’s office denied that they had concluded such an agreement or that they had anything to do with it.
“The real conviction is the conviction of the people. We have no guardianship over the people, but we support it because the constitution says they are the source of powers,” Sistani’s top aid told Arab News.
“We support peaceful demonstration because it is the right of the citizen … If it remains peaceful, it will affect the state’s convictions.
“We have no confidence that those (political forces) will be able to solve the problem. We see that they are part of the problem, not part of the solution and unless there is a real change within the constitutional items, the problem will remain the same.”

FASTFACTS

• Abdul Mahdi and his allies from the political forces announced their agreement to meet the demands of the demonstrators except the dismissal or resignation of the government, or early elections. 

• Ali Sistani’s top aid tells Arab News that the grand ayatollah does not suppport the continuation of the present government in Iraq.

Iraq ranks high on the list of the most corrupt countries. The system of political, sectarian and ethnic quotas adopted by Iraqi politicians since 2004, which includes the three presidencies and ministries and advanced positions in all state institutions, contributed to the spread of financial and administrative corruption and provided the required protection for corrupt politicians.
“There have been no real treatments for corruption over the past years. Corruption is rampant ... because of the weakness of the judiciary and the regulatory authorities, some of which have sought to use corruption cases to blackmail and enrich themselves.
“Officials are getting rich at the expense of the people. Corruption whales became powerful, while the qualified people have left Iraq and the graduates do not find jobs.
“We have no hope in the existing political forces and the chances of continuation of this government are very small. “They should all leave. This political class must leave.”
Al-Sistani has recently intervened in major events, as happened when the Iraqi Army collapsed and Daesh overran one-third of Iraqi territories in the western and northern parts of the country in the summer of 2014 and advanced toward Baghdad, when he issued an edict (fatwa) demanding that people take up arms and volunteer to support Iraqi forces in their fight against Daesh. Sistani’s intervention this time appeared gradually and through Friday sermons.

Strongest sermon
The last Friday sermon was the strongest to date, as Al-Sistani’s told his followers: “If those who have power (now), think they can evade real reform, with procrastination, they are delusional. The aftermath of these protests will not be the same as before. They should be careful.”
This was understood by most politicians and observers as a yellow ultimatum, which could soon be followed by a warning of expulsion or paralysis of civilian life.
“We do not interfere with particles. We have constitutional mechanisms that we do not want to get out of, but when we found that these mechanisms were tailored to the size of the existing political forces, we demanded a new electoral law that would ensure a genuine representation of the people and a new electoral commission that people trust will safeguard their choices,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“We will not allow things to descend into chaos. This is not an option. Our biggest concern is that the law will weaken further, which means slipping into infighting.”
Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi affairs, reflected by the statements of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who was publicly demanding an end to the demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon, and the involvement of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in the crackdown on protesters, has angered Al-Sistani. This was evident in his three previous speeches.
“We have a real problem: Iraq is negatively affected by the (regional) environment. We will not allow Iraq to be a battleground for any regional or international party ... we will not allow anyone to interfere in the affairs of Iraq, whether it is a friend or an enemy, because all interventions are aimed at serving special ambitions,” Al-Sistani’s aid said.
“He will not leave the people. If the people’s demand is for early elections, then we support early elections, and if they want to change the (political) system, we support it … and if they say that they do not want this government, we support it.
“Our position is clear and unambiguous. We are with the people in what they want ... and Al-Sistani has not used its strongest weapons yet.”