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‘Basra will not remain silent’: Inside the Iraq protests in July 2018

Protesters in Basra (screenshot)

Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis

Mass protests broke out in Iraq in July 2018, shutting down a border crossing with Kuwait, closing Najaf international airport and causing a heavy-handed crackdown by Baghdad. The Prime Minister ordered the Counter-Terrorism Service, the elite Coalition-trained forces that had previously fought ISIS, to be deployed. Protesters were killed by local police, some of whom refused orders to fire on locals.

The protesters mobilized against political parties after blocking roads to oil fields around Basra on July 11. They ransacked the party headquarters of Badr, Kataib Hezbollah, Dawa, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others, chanting slogans against Iran and against militias. They also gained support for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The government sought to employ a carrot and stick approach, sending the army and also promising jobs. Protesters complained of the cost of living, corruption, lack of infrastructure and electric outages. So Baghdad transferred electricity from Nineveh to the south.

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We obtained video from Iraq from supporters of the protests showing different aspects of the first week of the demonstrations. In the one above the men in Basra shout that they will not keep silent anymore.

One video shows young men near Basra at an oil facility. According to our source the young men were “Demonstrators of Zubayr (Al Zubair الزبير) entered the petrol fields of the bourgeoisie, south of Iraq.” He refers to a security zone around an oil facility several kilometers from an area being developed by Eni. The men note although the south produces all this petrol, they don’t benefit from it. They walk peacefully around.

We confirmed the location through several sources. “There is a major check point 900 meters from this location,” one said. It is southeast of Zubayr. The men gained access during the early days of the protest but by July 17 the Iraqi security forces had been deployed to keep people out of the sensitive areas so that oil production would not be hampered. However reports indicated that in some areas foreign companies evacuated their workers.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GnTr6pbOao

Another video shows men protesting saying that Basra will not remain silent. An activist said “The Iraqi government is trying to cut all the connection between the Iraqi people and the world. No internet in Iraq especially the cities where there are demonstrations.” He said that security forces were being heavy handed, “and killing civilians randomly under the excuse that they are threatening the Iraqi security and also demonstrators. Some forces got an order to announce in the south that they came from Salahuddin Province to kill people! This is a dirty move from the government trying to spread sectarianism and racism.” Locals said there were no services, and electricity and water services were lacking.

The source sent us video of a demonstrator who had been shot, noting “a demonstrator at the commercial intersection in Basra got killed by the militias of political parties.” In the video above he writes this is “Abu al-Khasib district wakes up from silence and starts demonstrations.”

Another graphic video shows a casualty from the demonstrations. “This man
man named Al Athari was demonstrating and got killed by the militia of Ammar Al-Hakim.” On the video the victim’s brother vows revenge. Another asks “where was the army when ISIS attacked us? Why the army did not fight them why didn’t protect us, yet now they appear to kill us because we are asking for our basic rights in peace.”

Although some close to the government blamed the demonstrations on “infiltrators” and accused Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or other social media for stirring up the protests, locals said the main reason for the demonstration is unemployment in the south.

One man wrote to us: “We have the majority of the petrol fields there non of the Iraqi people is hired there only foreign people and the Iraqis are suffering the poverty and bad services and the main problem is that there is no water for irrigation specially after what Iran did regarding that and the Iraqi government did nothing to save the situation.”

In Karbala, a holy city, a video shows a man attending a funeral of a demonstrator who was killed. He says several others were killed as well.

In the video, analyzed and translated by Alex Grinberg, the man relates the story of the “martyrdom” of a fallen demonstrator and says that Iraqi army who killed them in Karbala region. He urges Supreme Shiite Clerics and tribal sheikhs to condemn the behavior of the security forces. He wonders why all those who call the Shi’a to help out their brethren in Bahrain are keeping silence now in Iraq? Karbala, a holy city for Shi’ites, plays a role in his anger that “blood has been spilled in Karbala.”

In another video security forces are shown attacking local people. They claimed that in other cases militias were deployed in army uniforms which caused a “breaking of the trust” between locals and the army. This is because the militias are seen as aligned with various political parties that are connected to the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Units, whereas the army is ostensibly not political. “In the last few days the iraqi army showed an exceptional cooperation with the people and also supporting them during the demonstrations In the south,” a source said. In contrast militias such as Qais al-Khazali’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq was accused of firing on demonstrators in Najaf.

This video is alleged to be in Najaf. According to one person we spoke to by July 17 the government had sought to placate the protests by offering jobs and some queued with CVs. Sistani sent a representative to Basra to meet with the protesters. “This was a warning,” says one man familiar with the situation. Abadi has attempted to appear in charge. Since the May elections a new government has not been formed and he has sought to deal with the protests at the same time Iraq is facing rising ISIS violence in several central and northern provinces. He met with tribal leaders in Basra and Najaf and chaired a council of ministers.

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The UN mission in Iraq also spoke out, noting that “following the demonstrations over the lack of services, job opportunities and to demand improved living conditions, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Ján Kubiš, urges the government to fully respect and address the people’s legitimate concerns.” Kurdish official Hoshyar Zebari noted that the protests had eroded the “power and prestige” of the Iraqi state. Overall numbers for those killed and injured are not clear, especially as the government sought to close off various internet and social media services. One man tweeted that 262 members of the security forces had been injured.

The deployment of the CTS was controversial and its deployment appeared to be far beyond it’s mandate of fighting terror. The government sought to show it was investigating abuses during the protests. Nevertheless by July 17 the protests were continuing.

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