Iraq protests turn up heat on corrupt elite

Protesters in Basra protest government corruption and misuse of oil revenues.

Heat and corruption are a heady mix.

As Iraq swelters in record-breaking temperatures, thousands of largely young Iraqis are taking to the streets to protest the miserable conditions they face. They are angry about the lack of electricity and water - and blame rampant government corruption.

Temperatures in summer can often rise above 50 degrees Celsius in Iraq. But this summer, Iraqis in Baghdad and the southern cities of Basra, Karbala and Babil have experienced little let up. This year, temperatures in Baghdad reached an all time high of 51 degrees - remaining slightly cooler at 49 degrees Celsius for four consecutive days.

Under pressure, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared a four-day weekend in a bid to save power. He also promised to limit public officials’ use of electricity.

But this seems to be prompting even more anger: last month, a young man was killed at a protest in Basra in southern Iraq.

Ahmed Habib, editor of Iraqi digital magazine, told Common Dreams on August 1: “Young people, thirsty for an opportunity to gather outside the rhetoric of political parties, and their sectarian criminal agenda, rushed to the city’s main square [Tahrir Square in Baghdad] to demand better living conditions, chanting, ‘In the name of religion, the thieves robbed us’.”

Abdelhalim Yasser, who organised a march in Karbala, south-west of Baghdad, told Agence France-Press: “We have started this protest and will continue until services are improved, especially electricity. If this political class failed to improve the situation in 12 years, then they should resign, because we are running out of patience.”

“We demand the dismissal of the governor and of the provincial council; the time has come for Basra’s people to get their rights”, Ziyad Tareq, a 24-year-old student, told Al Jazeera on August 1.

When the deputy governor showed up to try to appease the protesters, he was pelted with plastic water bottles. The crowd insisted on meeting the governor.

“The local government is always promising improved water and electricity, but they are liars and no longer have any credibility,” Tareq said. “The temperature is 54 degrees [Celsius] in central Basra right now ... the Basra people are very angry at their rulers.”

On July 31, several hundred Iraqis gathered just before dusk in Tahrir Square in Baghdad chanting, “Thieves, thieves, thieves” – referring to endemic corruption at all levels of government.

“We are demonstrating against a failed government, a government that has disappointed the hopes of the people,” said Nahida Ahmad who is employed at the ministry of culture.

Dawood Akram, an engineer at the ministry of water resources, told Al Jazeera: “Thirteen years with no water, no electricity, no services and with low salaries. The people have had enough.”

War and occupation

Iraqis have, understandingly, focused on the government’s incompetency and corruption and much of the mainstream reporting has limited itself to that.

But some, like Habib, have pointed to the structural reasons behind Iraq’s inability to solve the infrastructural problems of water and electricity supply. “Dictatorship, wars, sanctions and occupation have created intolerable conditions for citizens,” he told Common Dreams.

These factors explain why a country so rich in resources – namely oil and potential solar energy — cannot generate enough power to keep people safe in summer heatwaves, which global warming is intensifying.

Since the 2003 invasion, in which more than 1 million Iraqis were killed and millions more displaced, much of Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed and there has been no reliable supply of electricity. Most people have access to just five hours a day.

Some can do that more easily than others: those with an air conditioner and a private generator, or a car with an air conditioner, can get a few hours of reprieve.

But most Iraqis either have to wait until the air coolers switch on for a few hours and huddle around them, or find a public source of water – such as a swimming pool or canal, which are mostly in states of ruin.

The disastrous - and ongoing - US intervention in Iraq includes the phenomenal failure of its neoliberal “shock therapy” program of privatisations and service cuts initiated in 2003 by then-US occupation chief Paul Bremer.

This included eradicating oil technicians and managers in the state-owned oil industry, who had built it up after its nationalisation in the 1970s and kept it running through wars and sanctions.

Meanwhile, in return for a US$1.24 billion International Monetary Fund loan, the Iraqi government has committed to “diversifying” its economy. This means privatisating state-run manufacturing companies and cutting the public sector, as well as raising electricity prices.

On top of this, the collapse of world oil prices and the cost of the ongoing conflict against ISIS have added to Iraq’s economic difficulties.

All these factors have helped create the present crisis, sparked by the current extraordinary heat wave. Confronting the crisis, a youthful and largely secular protest movement across Iraq has risen, determined to force change.

Habib told Common Dreams: “Despite these undemocratic conditions, rife with sectarianism and violence, corruption and theft the people of Iraq have always remained outspoken in their opposition to the systemic destruction of their country.”

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