In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqis in southern provinces of the country took to the streets to demand action over the lack of basic services and jobs. The protests began in the oil-rich Basra province, where people struggle with lack of clean water and electricity—amid temperatures exceeding 120 degrees—and economic injustice, among other challenges. Public protests, especially during the summer season, have become the norm in recent years, as Iraqis are increasingly frustrated by the inability of the government to deliver services, a problem that was exacerbated by the rise of ISIS and the diversion of resources that fight required. Ultimately, these protests demonstrate Iraq’s fragility and an accumulation of public grievances that could lead to the rise of new extremist violence if not addressed.

A bicyclist rides past a refinery near Basra, Iraq, on Oct. 27, 2009. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)
A bicyclist rides past a refinery near Basra, Iraq. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

With a significant drop in voter turnout from recent elections, the May parliamentary vote was but another indication of Iraqis' disenchantment with political parties and leaders and frustration over the lack of meaningful response to their legitimate demands. Two months after the elections, the protests that started in Basra have spread to other Iraqi provinces, including Baghdad, and have received public support from Iraq's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. They have already gained enough steam to lead to flight cancellations to the holy city of Najaf. Confrontations between protesters and security forces have left 56 civilians injured and eight dead, according to Iraq's Ministry of Health, with estimates of injuries among security forces exceeding 250.

The Impact of ISIS

Over the past four years, much of Iraq's attention and resources—and that of its international partners—was focused on the fight against ISIS. A drop in the price of oil, the backbone of Iraq's economy, made matters much worse. For years, the people of the south, where Basra is located, have complained about government neglect, underinvestment, organized crime, and narcotics. Expending government resources on the fight against ISIS left these problems to fester.

Historically, protests have emerged during the summer, but it would be a massive miscalculation to suggest that these protests are simply riding the heat wave. Indeed, while specific reasons may vary from one place to another, wherever you look in Iraq there is a core set of problems to protest: lack of services and jobs, corruption, and frustration with the political class.

People are angry seeing party officials and religious leaders getting rich and driving fancy cars, while they are disconnected from the reality of ordinary Iraqis' daily lives. Adding insult to injury, Iraqi leaders have peddled conspiracy theories over the nature of the protests and who is directing them. Such messages from government and societal leaders offend an increasingly active and mature civil society in Iraq, further fueling their anger and disillusionment.

Regardless of the motivation, the recent protests show the fragility of both Iraq as a country and the political base of the Shia majority. Fundamentally, the people have lost faith in the political class to deliver. These recent rounds of protests come at a difficult time, as Iraqis are still waiting for the formal outcome of a manual recount of the May vote. The integrity of the electoral process itself and the ability of a new government to address the needs of the people have come into doubt, exacerbating Iraqis' lack of confidence in public institutions. In fact, while Iraq’s High Electoral Commission said that voter turnout reached 44.5 percent, many Iraqis believe that it was only half that number.

An Accumulation of Grievances

Public pressure through protests and other nonviolent means is a healthy democratic practice that demonstrates an active citizenry. In this case, however, the danger lies in years of accumulated grievances and the government's inability to meet people's legitimate demands, which year after year have driven a wedge between citizens and the state. The use of force to contain the protests and protect government offices and officials has predictably backfired. This is particularly dangerous in the aftermath of the fight against ISIS, as Iraqi communities are more heavily armed than ever. In addition to armed groups under the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), tribes in the south—which was not controlled by ISIS—possess weapons and have used them to settle tribal differences and challenge the authority of the state.

Iraq's stability is paramount to preventing the resurgence of ISIS, other extremist violence, and further regional destabilization. A shallow look may lead to thinking that this round of protests will also be seasonal, as in past years, and abate. But, Iraqi leaders and the international community would be making a mistake if they treat it as such. The drivers of people's frustrations and triggers for their pouring to the street have been present for years, worsened due to the fight against ISIS, and now threaten to deepen Iraq's fragility.

Basra's Importance to Iraq

Accumulating Sunni frustration contributed to the rise of ISIS. While frustration in the south may not give rise to an extremist organization like ISIS, it could lead to instability and violence, as the south is home to most of the PMF groups, who are stakeholders in the security and politics of that part of the country specifically as well as Iraq as a whole.  

In recent months, civil society partners of the U.S. Institute Peace from northern provinces liberated from ISIS expressed concerns about instability in the south, especially Basra, because of economic ramifications for stabilization in ISIS-cleared areas and the country overall. Basra is a lifeline of Iraq's economy, and critical for its future. Angry crowds and competing powers—ranging from political parties to armed groups to what people increasingly refer to as the mafias of the south—threaten its vital oil infrastructure and access to ports and international waters. Neither will simply go away.

There have been recent indications that foreign diplomats are looking at the south of the country and assessing it struggles. However, there are those who believe Iraq, especially the Shia south, has been lost to Iran and that any sort of effort to ameliorate these problems could lead to confrontation with Tehran. Iraqis, particularly the Shia, fundamentally disagree with the notion that their country has been lost to Iran, but that hasn't prevented the international community's reticence to engage in the south. 

The heat may be seasonal, but people's frustrations are only increasing. To stabilize Iraq, the needs of the people must be addressed. Critical to achieving this objective is ensuring the credibility of the upcoming provincial elections and improving the performance of state institutions through real reform, hiring competent personnel, curbing corruption, and bringing in international expertise to build capacity and effectiveness. The relationship between the people and the state needs established channels of communications and collaboration. This could manage the people's expectations and prevent recourse to violence. Iraqi civil society organizations, one of the biggest success stories of post-2003 Iraq, could serve as an invaluable partner in this effort.

Iraqis and their international partners were able to achieve victory with the military defeat of ISIS. Now is the time to ensure the country continues to move toward stability or a reprise of extreme violence could yet again emerge.

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