IRQRestiveSouth18BAGHDAD - Protesters poured into the streets and picketed oil fields in southern Iraq amid growing discontent over the government's failure to combat unemployment, provide drinkable water or guarantee a steady electricity supply to power the air conditioning needed to survive the country’s grueling August heat.

“We closed the main roads leading to the [al-Qurna] gas field as a way to put pressure on the government because the provincial council did not keep their promise to negotiate with us after the police killed a student here,” said Ali Taha, 25, a trainee at Basra’s Petroleum Institute.

Police have fired into demonstrations, killing protesters and further ginning up tensions. Fourteen demonstrators have been killed and 650 injured since July, according to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Almost half of Iraq’s population is under the age of 19. Unemployment among that age group is 18 percent, according to government statistics. Authorities have arrested hundreds but released most of them if they signed guarantees to stay away from future protests, the Observatory said.

But those pledges will not stop other Iraqi youth from joining in the ongoing unrest, said Murtadha Ali, a 22-year-old student at Basra’s Technical Institute.

“The atmosphere is desperate,” said Ali. “There are no less than 400,000 unemployed people in this city of two million. These are people who can’t pay for bottled water which is a necessity here since the tap water is filled with dark, salty sediments.”

The protests continued as politicians in Baghdad struggled to assemble a ruling coalition as they waited for the Supreme Court to ratify a recount from May’s parliamentary election.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Iraqi politicians to form a “moderate" government in a phone call with Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi.

"Secretary Pompeo emphasized the importance of forming a moderate Iraqi government, pursuant to the constitutional timeline, that is responsive to the expectations of the Iraqi people,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

Abadi’s Victory Alliance political party gained only 42 seats in an Independent High Electoral Commission recount released Friday. The recount found that the Sairoun bloc allied with Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr lead in the polls but won only 54 seats, or too few to form a government in the 329-member parliament without partners.

The Conquest Alliance – a more militant Shiite group led by pro-Iranian paramilitary chiefs – a came in in second place with 47 seats. But that party has been losing popularity as their Asaeb Ahl Al Haq and Badr militias have been shooting civilians in the protests.

Since Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq in early July in a dispute over power rates, critics blame Tehran for creating the chaos that is destabilizing the country and causing trouble for Abadi, a moderate Shiite. But protesters said they were not doing the bidding of the mullahs in Iran. Instead, they said corruption and intrigues have ruined Iraqi politics.

“The religious party leaders are just puppets of the Iranians,” said 39-year-old Baghdad protester Omar Zeyad Sami. “This is a spontaneous movement that comes after 15 years of death, misery and corruption. The people have come out to reject the dominating political mafias. I think most of the demands could be met if the politicians stopped stealing.”

The global watchdog group Transparency International said that Iraq’s ranking has fallen three places this year in its global Corruption Perceptions Index.

Out of a total of 180 countries, Iraq came in at number 169. Last year, the country was 166 out of 176 nations, putting it behind countries such as Turkmenistan, Angola and Eritrea.

In Najaf – a pilgrimage city and center of Shiite spirituality – protesters were outraged over the ways so-called “religious” politicians enriched themselves at the public trough.

“Eighty-six billion dinars [$ 71.6 million] disappeared from the project to improve gas and oil production at the state-owned Najaf Refinery,” said Talib Kadhim al-Zayadi, a 57-year-old local attorney. “We want this outrage investigated and we want the politicians to give the buildings their parties took over to be used as schools and health centers.”

The Najaf airport, with 65 scheduled flights weekly to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport, has become a flashpoint for demonstrations where protesters burned images of the Iranian leaders after the power cuts in July.

During a July 13 protest, police killed a 25-year-old demonstrator at the airport entrance with live ammunition and a 19-year-old died of suffocation after being exposed to tear gas.

“Each time we go to protest, we face either psychological or physical suffering,” said Ali Chasib, a 27-year-old unemployed university graduate from Sadr City, a working-class Baghdad suburb with more than a million residents. “First, they try to break up the demonstrations with arrests, then they try to disperse us with false promises and finally they use tear gas.”

He saw no reason to stop.

“But this generation insists on change and will be heard even if we have to die to end the corruption,” Chasib said.

Photo: July 28, 2018 - Basra, Iraq - Screenshot of protesters in Basra taking to the streets to demonstrate against the poor economic conditions.
Credit: Courtesy of Ruptly's official YouTube channel. (07/28/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/27/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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