Protests in Iraq: The last straw

Friday, 2018-07-20 17:33:24
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Iraqi protesters burn tyres to block roads around Basra. (Photo: Reuters)
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NDO – The prolonged protests, accompanied by bloody clashes, against social policies in Iraq have moved into the second week. In the context of Iraq having conducted a controversial parliamentary election and currently facing multiple challenges after defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), the wave of protests could be regarded as dangerous flames threatening the stability and national security in the Middle Eastern country.

Corruption, poor public services, rising unemployment and expensive commodity prices are the main causes for the current wave of protests in Iraq, which started in Basra province before spreading to other provinces and cities in the south. Protesters stormed into the headquarters of government agencies and political parties. Many extremists set fires, threw stones at security forces, and blockaded the streets. The clashes between protesters and police forces left at least eight civilians dead and nearly 500 wounded, including hundreds of police officers.

The wave of protests in Iraq is just the “last straw”, as the Middle Eastern nation has been experiencing so much turbulence and incidents. Despite once being a wealthy country in the region, Iraq has been immersed in constant waves of violence due to war, conflict, and terrorism, with infrastructure being devastated and the people’s lives faced by numerous difficulties. The protesters criticised that, since 2003, the shortages of electricity and water have seriously affected the lives of the people, especially during the hot summer in the Middle East. In the parliamentary election last May, the majority of voters did not cast their ballots in order to show dissatisfaction with the administration.

In an effort to reassure protesters, Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged to allocate a budget of US$3 billion to Basra province, while promising to increase budget spending for housing, services and schooling programmes in such an oil-rich but neglected region. Oil accounts for 89% of Iraq’s budget revenues and 99% of the country’s export earnings. However, the sector only meets 1% of the employment demand of local labourers, while the remaining employment is open for foreigners. The unemployment rate in Iraq currently stands at 10.8%, with youth unemployment twice as high as that figure.

With a production output of 4.55 million barrels a day, Iraq is the second largest crude oil producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), after Saudi Arabia. Such a large oil potential, with a proven reserve of more than 150 billion barrels, has made the distribution of “black gold” revenues a sensitive issue in Iraq. This country often falls into profound disputes and divisions concerning the distribution of the profits from oil.

According to analysts, the wave of protests over recent days has “shaken” Iraq in the context that the cabinet of PM Al-Abadi is outgoing and political parties are conducting negotiations aiming to form a new coalition in the parliament in preparation for the establishment of a new government. From just the economic and social uncertainties, Iraq is in danger of falling into political turmoil, as protests turn into violence with no sign of calming down.

After more than eight years since the Saddam Hussein regime was overthrown, followed by the fight against terrorism lasting for the past four years, Iraq has been seriously devastated. Despite claiming victory over the IS, the threat of terrorism remains a constant concern for the Baghdad administration.

Iraq was not directly hit as the wave of protests of the “Arab Spring” swept through the region in 2011. But the recent developments suggest that if the deadlocks, turbulences, and underlying contradictions in society are not promptly resolved, it is quite possible that Iraq will face a similar “hurricane” in the near future.