Widespread protests have gripped multiple Iraqi cities for a week in response to government corruption, rising unemployment, and an electricity shortage which has left residents suffocating in soaring summer temperatures.
What began as anger over a continued failing infrastructure, however, has increasingly turned into political protests and clashes with police after May 12th parliamentary elections tainted by broad allegations of fraud failed to produce a new government.
And now Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has weighed in publicly on the side of the protesters, stating they are facing an "extreme lack of public services".
Sistani's words were issued via live television broadcast during a significant escalation in the Shia hotbed of Najaf on Friday, where hundreds of protesters stormed the city's international airport, bringing air traffic to a halt.
Video showed demonstrators rushing through security barriers while chanting demands, and multiple fires were lit just outside the terminal. Iraqi police appear to have held back, as the protesters numbers were significant — possibly into the thousands according to social media footage — and were able to block key access points to the airport. State TV reported that security was restored and operations resumed as normal by late Friday.
Najaf international airport is filled with protesters at this moment, operations are coming to a hault, protesters are on the tarmac pic.twitter.com/HrOPZ1Mzyr— Steven nabil (@thestevennabil) July 13, 2018
Though sporadic protests over the country's failing electricity grid have been ongoing throughout the summer, last weekend witnessed the first significant clashes with security forces in the southern city of Basra, resulting in an least one death. And this weekend's clashes appear to be escalating with at least two more deaths reported in Amara, the capital of the Maysan province on the border with Iran.
In response, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly held an emergency homeland security cabinet meeting Friday and personally went to the restive southern city of Basra to address and attempt to calm the current unrest.
Significantly, demonstrators have begun targeting oil companies located in the city, where according to Al-Monitor counter-terror units have deployed:
Dozens of demonstrators stormed the offices of South Oil Company in Basra on July 12 before security forces regained control of the site the same evening. Protesters have now blocked the routes to local oil refineries, setting up tents on the main streets near the oil fields.
On July 13, special forces from the counterterrorism unit arrived in Basra to protect the oil companies and oil fields in the province.
Foreign oil companies have further begun evacuations, according to the same report:
With protests continuing, foreign oil companies have begun operations to transfer their international employees from Basra province in efforts to avert any possible attacks on them. Local media reported July 12 that helicopters evacuated staff from the Lukoil headquarters in Qurna’s second oil field, as security forces stepped up their presence in the area after a checkpoint was burned by demonstrators. But the Ministry of Oil denied the news.
Other regional media reports indicate protesters have already attempted to storm oil facilities and offices, in some instances setting fire to external structures, while also blocking access to the nearby commodities port of Umm Qasr.
Protests also raged in the cities of Amara and Nasiriya reportedly over unemployment and delivery of basic services.
Large-scale protests across multiple cities in southern #Iraq over lack of services, unemployment and electricity shortages.— Haidar Sumeri (@IraqiSecurity) July 13, 2018
Najaf airport has been stormed by protestors. Political party HQs in Maysan province set alight. Roads around Basra blocked. pic.twitter.com/xL5aKTX61K
Last week, Basra provincial council member Zahra Hamza told local media that, “Basra is facing a real electricity crisis which has compelled its citizens to go out and protest against constant electricity outages.”
Likely fueling widespread anger that erupted in the streets this week, the Ministry of Oil for Iraq said a week ago that it's been doling out oil and fuel only on an essential basis to select government and civil institutions which depend on it to function. The Iraqi Ministry of Oil issued the following statement while separately placing the blame on "wasteful" consumers: “The company distributes petroleum products to provide fuel in all types of oil derivatives to citizens in the provinces and families, IDPs in areas liberated from terrorism, the Ministry of Electricity and private generators.”
While PM Abadi has vowed to rebuild the economy after years of conflict, most recently the hugely destabilizing conflict with Islamic State terrorists, frustrations have reached a boiling point in the oil-rich south, where the population has failed to see a return in terms of public services in spite of Iraq being the second biggest producer of crude in OPEC, with 153 billion barrels of proven reserves.
According to Middle East Eye, "The oil sector accounts for 89 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq's export revenues, but only one percent of jobs as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners."
Currently, unemployment in Iraq stands at 10.8% according to official numbers (though likely this figure is much higher) and youth unemployment is over twice that number in a country where 60% are under the age of 24.
Interestingly, Iraqi parliament member and firebrand popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, fresh off a surprise victory in the May elections wherein he focused on an anti-corruption message, has recently proposed privatizing electrical services for the country. He's suggested outsourcing to “foreign, non-occupying” businesses, in statements that implied companies based in the West should be banned from operating in Iraq.