Iraqis demanding electricity, water, jobs and an end to corruption are expected to take to the streets in Iraq’s Shia south on Friday following mosque prayers, despite current temperatures of 48 degrees.
Since July 8th, protests have radiated from sweltering Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, to oil installations and southern urban centres including the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, as well as to the northeastern Sunni province of Diyala. At least eight people have been killed in the protests, with dozens injured and hundreds arrested.
Communist leader Raed Fahmi said: “These protests are the result of the eroding of hope. People have no faith that there is going to be an improvement in the situation. Though leaders have made promises, none have been fulfilled.”
Caretaker prime minister Haider al-Abadi sought to calm tensions by flying from the Nato summit in Brussels to Basra last Friday for urgent discussions with the governor of the oil-rich province and the head of the electricity company.
Mr Abadi promised $5 billion (about €4.3 billion) in investment to, but offered no early respite for, long-suffering southerners, their needs neglected for decades by Baghdad even though the region's oil fields yield most of Iraq's export earnings, estimated at $264 million daily.
As Mr Abadi conferred with officials, highly respected Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said in his Friday sermon in Karbala: "It is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable in Iraq. "
At least 41 per cent of the country’s population of 38 million lives below the poverty line; in Basra city, the main port for oil exports, the figure is 50 per cent.
Since the south is Iraq’s Shia heartland, residents did not believe they would be ignored after the US installed a Shia fundamentalist regime in 2003 following the ousting of the secular Ba’athist government.
While there has been investment in oil facilities and in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, which have prospered from rising numbers of pilgrims, local people have not benefited.
Since the parliamentary election in May, Iraq’s fractured political factions have failed to form a government, deepening the frustration of Iraqis who had expected Baghdad to meet their demands once Islamic State, also known as Isis, had been contained.
Mr Abadi was blamed for failing to deliver public services and tackle corruption. His party came third in May’s poll. The group with the largest number of seats is headed by anti-corruption campaigner and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; in second place is the party led by Hadi al-Amiri, commander of Iraq’s most powerful Shia militia. These three parties have a total of 143 seats, 22 short of the 165 needed to form a government capable of providing for the populace.
During the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, Basra was in the frontline. After its 1991 war on Iraq, the US urged Shias to revolt against the Ba’athist regime, which crushed the uprising and subsequently punished Basra.
Washington predicted reconstruction in Iraq would be financed by oil revenues following the 2003 US occupation, but oil earnings have been wasted or pocketed by corrupt politicians and officials. The 2014-18 military offensives against Isis have swallowed remaining revenues that could have been invested in the country’s decaying infrastructure.