The Importance of the Basra Protests

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • The Iraqi city of Basra has returned to relative quiet after a week of protests and sporadic violence.
  • While some want to put a sectarian spin on the protests, the persistent issues of corruption, poor governance and inefficient provision of services compelled residents to demonstrate.
  • The protests likely mark the end of Prime Minister al-Abadi’s push for a second term, with a great deal of political maneuvering now underway.
  • While Iran of course has influence, as does the U.S. to a lesser degree, the decision will be made by Iraqis still in search of capable political leadership.

Frustration with inept governance has served as one of the few unifying issues in Iraq capable of transcending ethnic group, religion, tribe or sect. From the national level to many municipalities, the Iraqi government has repeatedly proven its inability to deliver even the most basic services. The lack of clean water in Basra is just one example. Rising resentment over poor governance led to months of tensions and a week of significant, and sometimes violent, protests in the southern port city.

The relative quiet now is a pause of unknown duration, since the underlying issues have not been addressed in any meaningful fashion. Basra’s economic and strategic importance are elevated by the city’s close, but sometimes uneasy ties to neighboring Iran, making these protests important not just in terms of local grievances, but also perhaps with respect to elections for the next Iraqi prime minister.

The protests over contaminated drinking water, persistent power outages in an oil-rich region, a struggling economy, and corruption combined to expose tensions between political blocs and Iranian-backed militias and other Shi’a groups with a more nationalistic or local focus. At the apogee of these protests, in which the Iranian consulate and many Iraqi political party buildings were torched and 15 people killed, local militias accused protesters of being in league with the United States.

Not only are these charges false, but are also the opposite of what the U.S. would have wanted, given how badly the protests damaged the prospects of Prime Minister al-Abadi, Washington’s preferred choice. Indeed, the U.S. has struggled over the past decade and a half to grasp the nuances of Iraqi politics.

The U.S. strongly supports a second term for al-Abadi, but that appears exceedingly unlikely now; his support was weakening even before the Basra protests and may continue to suffer in their aftermath. The governor of Basra Province, Asaad al-Aidani, is a contender to replace al-Abadi, who remains prime minister four months after the May elections left the country in even more of a political upheaval; the various blocs are still maneuvering and shifting their alliances, seemingly by the week, to gain enough support to claim power. The U.S. doesn’t really have an alternative candidate, while the potential candidates to replace al-Abadi include some familiar names, including former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, with whom the U.S. has very strained relations. Still, there might be a push for a clean slate to change the long-running dysfunction with the same politicians. In this sense, the U.S. might look at Iraq and have visions of Afghanistan and the bizarre saga of dealing with the mercurial Hamid Karzai.

On September 10, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who retains immense influence among the Shi’a, not just in Iraq but throughout the wider region, let it be known that his office would not support any former prime minister to be the next prime minister, dealing al-Maliki’s chances a blow. For months, Al-Sistani has been a vocal supporter of the protestors in Basra. In July, the cleric noted, ’it is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable areas in Iraq’ and demanded that ‘federal and local government to deal seriously with the demands of citizens.’

The failure of Baghdad and the provinces to provide basic services matters far more to Iraqis than sectarian or regional concerns. The U.S. might view recent events through the zero-sum lens of Iran, yet the issues are very much local and Iraqi. Iran unquestionably maintains influence with its neighbor, yet its level of influence is sometimes inflated. The most sensible regional stabilization strategy that the U.S. and others can reasonably pursue is to enhance the performance of local good governance, which is difficult in the short-term, but can be effective in the long-term.

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