Ongoing post-election protests in Basra, Iraq’s main port city, and other provinces across the south of the country risk spreading to the whole country as hundreds of civilians are reported killed or injured. Demanding a more equal distribution of oil and gas revenues and better access to basic needs such as electricity and water, the protesters have been met with a mixture of carrots and sticks as the Iraqi government tries to come to grips with the situation. Judging by calls for similar action in Anbar province and the possible involvement of Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers, it is perhaps not surprising that most regional observers remain pessimistic about Iraq’s near term prospects for stability.
Iraqi News reports indicate that the government has been keen to be seen as trying to address the demands of the protesters by adopting “several measures to enhance services and secure jobs for angry Iraqis who launched a week of protests over poor services and joblessness. A statement by the Iraqi cabinet’s media said the cabinet ordered to made allocations from oil and border crossings toll revenues for the province of Basra, the epicenter of the recent wide-scale protests at southern regions. According to the statement, the measures include increased water supply and acceleration of works at local water facilities.”
One of the reasons the protests have spread is that the stakes are not just economic but concern the distribution of political and economic power in a post-ISIS Iraq. Writing for the Kurdish website Rudaw, David Romano warns that “Just like when it comes to Sunni Arab areas newly liberated from ISIS and in Kurdish areas recently coerced away from any moves towards independence, the government in Baghdad has a limited window of opportunity to address problems. If Baghdad fails to give Sunnis and Kurds their promised shares of governing power and wealth, if it goes on pumping oil from places like Basra and Kirkuk while the people there continue to live in poverty, the next big Iraqi crisis will not be long in coming. The past week’s protests in the south are simply a warning that people’s patience – whether they be Shia, Sunni, Kurdish or other – has limits.”
Given the ongoing post-election instability, it is not a surprise that some feel the Iraqi government has tried to use the threat posed by ISIS and other militant groups to distract from what Al Ahram’s Salah Nasrawi suggests are more pressing problems: “Rather than admit their chronic failure to end the communal divisions and meet the economic, security and other needs of much of the population, Al-Abadi and the country’s Shia leaders blamed a plethora of ‘infiltrators’ and loyalists to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for the widespread unrest.... Fear of terrorism and preparations to fight terrorists are justified. But the use of a threat as a way of dodging responsibility for nation and state-building in Iraq will only make people more distrustful of their government and the international community even as IS does not remain the only destabilizing factor in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, Iraq’s neighbors are watching nervously for any signs that the country’s domestic troubles may spill over the border. Arab Times’s editor-in-chief Ahmed Al-Jarallah cautions against becoming too relaxed in the face of ongoing instability in Iraq: “It is true that the ongoing events in Iraq are considered an internal issue related to demanding better living standards after 15 years of suffering caused by perverse attitude toward reality. Nonetheless, it will not hurt to be cautious. In fact, the highest alert level is necessary, because today’s Iraq is different from the one during the reign of Saddam Hussein who planned to invade Kuwait while preaching calm and reassurance in the Arab world.... we should not settle by saying that the ongoing events in our neighbor’s backyard are considered an internal issue which does not call for caution and alertness, or regard the threats made by some parties against Kuwait and Saudi Arabia as just a summer cloud.”
Muna Al-Fuzai, in an op-ed for the Kuwait Times, makes a similar plea for taking precautionary measures, while also expressing the hope for a “strong and stable” “The most important question remains: Will the fate of the current Basra protests be like the fate of its predecessors? No one wants that, and it depends on how the Iraqi government deals with the situation in general. I believe that in the Gulf region, we need a strong and stable Iraq because it is a very close neighbor. But when your neighbor’s house burns, you have to be careful not to be exposed to the fire or the sparks coming from that direction in the event of instability. Kuwait’s interior ministry has raised the alert level on the northern border due to events in southern Iraq. This is a normal procedure and required until the situation calms down. Preserving our internal security is essential.”
But Iraq’s post-election uncertainty, Bashdar Ismaeel argues in the Daily Sabah, may be difficult to overcome considering the long list of challenges facing Iraqi society: “[A] disappointing election turnout, controversy over alleged election malpractices, an upsurge of Daesh [ISIS] attacks, and the tough task of cobbling together a workable coalition amongst several divergent electoral alliances illustrates the difficult task that looms ahead for Iraq.... With al-Sadr running on an anti-Iranian, pro-Arab nationalist and cross sectarian platform, many analysts viewed his electoral success as a rejection of Iranian interference and thus as a setback to Tehran.... Keeping the impossible balance between so many coalitions, sectarian groupings, ethnicities and influence from religious authorities both within and outside of Iraq, not to mention foreign meddling, just goes to demonstrate the tough battle ahead for Iraq.”
It is bad enough that, as The National’s Mina Al-Oraibi laments, some Iraqis are beginning to consider the benefits of returning to military rule: “The deep malaise in Iraq has led to speculation about a potential military coup. Senior Iraqi officials for the first time since the disbanding of the army in 2003 have posited this as a possibility. For a moment, it does not seem like such a bad idea. The Iraqi army proved its professionalism in the battle against ISIS while its leadership showed commitment to protecting the people of Iraq…. An imposition of law and order is craved throughout the country. Overthrowing a corrupt system seems appealing at first. But what happens the day after?... Iraq doesn’t need another coup but it does need a head of state that can look out for its citizens and rise above the messy political infighting playing the country.”