The uprising in Basra has been both a remarkable and an almost unimaginable event in recent Iraqi history. It has captured the minds of activists, commentators and politicians and has become the topic of often ardent and contentious debate.
During the three months when the civic protests evolved into a violent uprising against the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, most of the discussions have come to focus on whether the protest would fizzle out or escalate into a broader uprising.
Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that the street protests in Basra have left their impact on Iraq’s politics and demonstrated that Iraqis will no longer accept the status quo.
Residents of Basra and other cities in Iraq’s southern Shia heartland have been protesting since July over rampant corruption, government mismanagement, a lack of basic services and severe economic difficulties.
Further clashes erupted earlier this week, leaving several civilians and policemen dead. The protesters stormed and set fire to provincial government buildings, political party offices and even the houses of local politicians.
The protesters set the Iranian consulate in Basra on fire and tried to storm the US consulate in the city, turning their wrath on the two countries that many Iraqis perceive as trying to extend their sway over Iraq’s political affairs.
Although the oil-rich province with its more than 200 billion barrels of estimated reserves provides some 90 per cent of Iraq’s revenues, it has little to show for this as residents complain that these revenues are not being used to develop the province.
Public anger has escalated after the government failed to resolve some of the immediate problems in Basra, in particular the drinking water shortages and power outages.
The port town of some three million people is home to some of the worst poverty in the country. Residents have been demanding that the government spend more of its oil wealth on tackling widespread poverty and provide jobs to tens of thousands of unemployed young people.
A sense of calm has now returned to Basra, however, after the violent protests that left at least 15 people dead and dozens wounded.
But the unrest has highlighted the more profound national challenges with which the Iraqi ruling factions must now wrestle.
The uprising in Basra comes amid one of the worst political crises in the country since the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group seized large swathes of territory in 2014 and threatened to attack Baghdad.
Three months after the country elected a new parliament, Iraq remains as divided and ungovernable as ever, with rival political and ethno-sectarian groups feuding over government posts and shares in the country’s wealth.
Iraq’s new parliament was thrown into uncertainty after dozens of parties failed to create a coalition government and could not agree on a speaker or other parliamentary roles.
Meanwhile, the US and Iran have both struggled to put their allied Iraqi politicians in the seats of power in Baghdad.
US Special Presidential Envoy in Iraq Brett McGurk and US Ambassador Douglas Silliman have been shuttling between the offices of Iraqi groups, hoping to enlist support for outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to counter efforts by Iran’s point man in Iraq, Qassem Suleimani and Iranian Ambassador in Baghdad Iraj Masjedi to stifle the US bid.
Part of the goal behind pushing Al-Abadi back into power is the conviction among Washington’s policy-makers that he could be a reliable partner in US President Donald Trump’s policy of rolling back Iran’s influence in Iraq and confronting its proxies.
However, Tehran’s and Washington’s meddling in the country has aggravated the crisis and escalated tensions between the two rival Shia groups competing to form Iraq’s next government.
The Basra crisis has highlighted deep fractures within Iraq’s majority Shia population, which has been deeply frustrated by seeing its inept political leaders turned into proxies in the US-Iranian confrontation.
Indeed, Basra’s anti-government Shia protests underline a bigger problem than just public frustration. The standoff reflects a deeper schism that will likely determine the future of the Shia ruling groups and probably of the Shias’ empowerment.
Last Saturday, Shia militia forces deployed on the streets of Basra a day after protesters in the city had stormed the Iranian consulate and torched government buildings.
Masked militiamen in combat fatigues set up checkpoints and rode through the city centre in black pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted in the back.
The muscle-flexing came after ten Shia militia groups backed by Iran warned they would expel “foreign troops” by all possible means and threatened to act against Al-Abadi’s “irresponsible” decisions to reshuffle the Hashd Al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation Force, (PMF), an umbrella group for the Iran-backed Shia militias.
Al-Abadi fired Falih Al-Fayadh, the PMF commander, last week after the latter was rumoured to be a frontrunner in the race for the post of Iraq’s next prime minister.
In comments made on Saturday, Al-Fayadh’s Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis group lashed out at Al-Abadi and implicitly warned that the militias would defend Iraq’s “political process” and stop “aggression with all their might”.
The crisis in Iraq is also increasingly tied to other Middle Eastern conflicts in the shape of the US-Iranian standoff, the Syrian Civil War, the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Kurdish aspirations for independence and international terrorism.
From the regional and international perspective, the crisis in Iraq and other conflicts in the region are not closed systems but involve the active engagement of regional and global powers.
As a result, any attempt to end the standoff in Iraq will require an understanding between Iran and the United States similar to those made prior to forming governments in Baghdad after the US-led invasion in 2003.
US and Iranian diplomats even met before the war to secure a compromise on the occupation of Iraq.
The meeting, held in Geneva between Mohamed Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and future foreign minister, and Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador in Baghdad, aimed at discussing the future of Iraq following the ouster of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The meetings continued even after American troops had seized Baghdad in April 2003.
The present uprising in Basra and the fear of a flare-up with larger regional consequences could provide an opportunity for rival Iraqi groups and regional and international stakeholders to reach a compromise on a new prime minister in Iraq.
Some signs appeared this week that such a compromise was possible as the unrest in Basra begin to settle. However, the events in Basra might have changed the political landscape and created new rules of the game.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, who had entered a coalition with Al-Abadi following the elections in May, has reportedly now left the alliance, a step which will deprive the incumbent prime minister of his chances for a second term.
Al-Sadr’s bloc has also called upon Al-Abadi to resign following an emergency session of parliament to discuss the crisis in Basra and after Al-Abadi was censured by the assembly.
British Ambassador to Iraq Jon Wilks revealed on Sunday that he was offering his mediation between US and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad to try to resolve their disputes.
“My team and I have regular contact with Iranian and US colleagues and hope to use that in the coming days to share our reading of the facts of recent days far from propaganda and far-fetched conspiracy theories,” he wrote.
It is unlikely, however, that last-minute deals or foreign brokerage will provide a lasting solution to the crisis in Iraq because any such compromise will likely focus on short-term solutions and leave the original grassroots dynamics of Iraq’s problems in the shadows.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq: Why the uprising matters