Basra, 540 km south of Baghdad, is the only Iraqi port and the country’s gateway to the Gulf, which was itself once called the Gulf of Basra.
The province is described as the lung of the Iraqi economy not only because of its contribution to Iraq’s budget through its huge oil fields but also because it possesses more than 200 billion barrels of oil, the fifth-largest deposit in the world.
The city is also Iraq’s main border town with Iran, Kuwait and the Gulf States.
On 10 September, peaceful protests resumed in Basra, with thousands of young men and women raising Iraqi flags and shouting “Basra won’t be silenced.”
The organisers of the latest protests that began at the end of July when the temperature was above 50 degrees Centigrade amidst shortages of electricity and clean water decided to stop the demonstrations by the end of ITS first week when unknown people attacked and set fire to many public establishments, the headquarters of the Islamic parties and the Iranian consulate in the city.
The present writer was in Basra some weeks ago, after an absence of almost five years. I was astonished, as this was not the place I had known as one of the most modern cities in the Middle East.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s caused huge damage to Basra, causing it to lose many surrounding villages and historical sites in addition to many of its people either as a result of Iranian missiles or by their fleeing the war towards Baghdad and other cities.
“We thought that the new Iraq would mean a new Basra,” said Iraqi activist Ilham Al-Zubaidee, from Basra, adding that “the situation has become unbearable. There is no clean water to drink, to have a bath, or to water our gardens. If we could buy it to drink and to wash, poorer families would not be able to afford it.”
“We are demonstrating just to survive,” she said. “The unclean water has poisoned tens of thousands of people, among them women and children, while the hospitals have shortages of dehydration treatments.”
Another activist who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said that there was “footage on social media showing that the governorate building was on fire before we decided to sit in front of it to condemn the corruption in the country. The corrupt ones found a chance to get rid of the documents by burning it,” he said.
“The attackers who set the public buildings and the Iranian consulate in Basra on fire were not peaceful demonstrators who want nothing more but to live with dignity, especially as we have tens of thousands of jobless young men and women while tens of thousands of foreigners are working in the giant oil companies in the area,” said Ali Hussein, an activist from Basra.
He added that “those who set the buildings on fire were using the demonstrations. Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi condemned the torching of the Iranian consulate while admitting that what has happened in Basra is a real political conflict among the political blocs with armed wings.”
Al-Abadi, who reached Basra last Monday to try to defuse the situation and ease the tensions after five days of demonstrations had led to 12 killed and hundreds wounded, told officials and tribal leaders that investigations were continuing to discover where the 109 billion Iraqi dinars (about $91 million) allocated to public serves, especially clean water, in the area had gone.
Hours after Al-Abadi’s statement activists published on social media a document signed by the minister of planning approving a demand by the local Basra administration to transfer the money from the annual allocations for projects in Basra and showing no sign of a clean water project.
Meanwhile, Al-Abadi claimed that some of the water facilities needed nothing more than new pipelines.
The last five days of demonstrations have also aimed at the political and Islamist parties, with demonstrators raising banners saying “Basra Without Parties” and “Leave Basra”.
Qusay Al-Malih, a tribal sheikh from Basra, was quoted as saying there were three capitals in Iraq: Baghdad, the political capital, Basra, the economic capital, and Najaf, the religious capital. He asked the Islamist parties to withdraw from Basra to Najaf along with their supporters.
Regarding the salt tide in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, the main source of fresh water supplies for Basra, Ali Al-Waeli, an environment professor, said that “the estuarine environment where the fresh river water meets the salty sea water results in particular features of the environment including in the Shatt Al-Arab, the Arabian Gulf, the Khor Al-Zubair, and even some of the southern marshes which are also affected by tides.”
“The salt water advance has had an adverse impact on vital agricultural, environmental and economic activities in the province of Basra,” Al-Waeli said.
The demonstrators were quoted as saying that another reason for the increasing salt tides in the Shatt Al-Arab was that Iran had blocked the river and had begun pouring salt waste into it.
Wasan Ahmed, an irrigation engineer, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the salt tides had begun four months ago, but the authorities had turned a blind eye to them.
The situation in Basra was the reason Iraq’s new parliament held an emergency session that many experts said was unconstitutional as the lawmakers had failed to elect a speaker and two deputies, with temporary speaker Mohamed Zeini saying the session would remain open until 15 September.
25 lawmakers representing Basra accused the central government in Baghdad of neglecting Basra, and Al-Abadi faced calls to resign.
“We demand that the government apologise to the people of Basra and that it resign immediately,” said MP Hassan Al-Aqouli, who is from Basra and is spokesman of the Saeeroun list of Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr that won the most seats in the May elections in Iraq.
Al-Aqouli’s statement effectively put an end to the alliance supposed to be tle largest bloc between Al-Sadr’s list and Al-Nasr, the list supporting Al-Abadi, which had previously represented the supposed to be-largest bloc in parliament.
MP Ahmed Al-Assadi, spokesman of the second-largest Al-Fath Coalition, denounced the “government’s failure to resolve the Basra crisis”.
Al-Abadi then issued a communiqué describing the crisis in Basra as “political sabotage,” indicating that it had been manufactured to establish another majority bloc that would nominate the incoming prime minister.
Political analyst Najm Al-Kassab told the Weekly that Al-Abadi had been surprised at how the Basra session of parliament had turned against him. The people of Basra did not believe government officials, he said, as their previous promises had turned out to be nothing but words.
Regarding the failure of the new parliament to elect a speaker, analyst Basil Hussein told the Weekly that “the postponing of the session proves that the political blocs see themselves as being above the constitution and the decisions of the Higher Federal Court that issued a decision about an emergency session being unacceptable.”
“They should adhere to Article 55 of the Constitution that states that the speaker and his two deputies should be elected in the first session of the parliament after the oath of new MPs. The same court in decision 25 for 2010 also ordered all the lists to announce the largest bloc in the first session,” Hussein said.
“But there is no point referring to the constitution or to the court decisions as long as the political will is missing.”
Meetings of MPs are ongoing, and all the lists have refused to accept any US and Iranian interference, even as they know that the new Iraqi prime minister will have to be acceptable to these foreign powers.
Many MPs said that Iraq’s Supreme Shia Spiritual Leader Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Al-Sistani had asked that Al-Abadi not be allowed to serve a second term.
A statement was issued by the Shia authorities in Najaf, the Marja, saying that they did not support any “political leader who has been in authority in past years” for the next prime minister.
The decision is very important and has been heard by all Iraqis, who continue to reject the country’s politicians and officials and insist instead on the need to listen to the voices of the deprived, not only in Basra but also across Iraq.
The Marja called for a “new face” and for a new prime minister known for his competency, integrity, courage and firmness.
However, as long as eight MPs from the different Sunni lists continue to nominate themselves to the post of speaker, analysts are pessimistic that one will be elected during the 15 September session.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Basra protests continue