Iraq was rocked by increasingly violent protests for a seventh day on Sunday as citizens of the oil-rich southern province of Basra took to the streets denouncing corruption and demanding water, electricity and jobs.
Two people were killed on Sunday night in spillover protests in nearby Samawa bringing the total death toll to five since protests began as the demonstrations appeared to spread.
"Hundreds of people tried to storm a courthouse. Shots were fired towards us. It was not clear who was shooting. We had no choice but to open fire," a police official said.
Authorities imposed a curfew, put security forces on alert and shut down the internet and social media in a bid to quell spreading protests by a population whipped into a fury by chronic shortages of basic services.
Protests continued Sunday in Iraq’s Shia heartland, with at least seven people injured when police fired tear gas and water cannon on a crowd of hundreds outside a government building in Basra city.
The southern province of Basra accounts for more than 95 per cent of the country’s oil export revenues, but each summer it is crippled by water and electricity shortages.
“Water. I am demanding water,” said one protester, caught on video at a demonstration in Basra city. “It’s a shame that I am demanding water in 2018 and I have oil that feeds the world. I’m not asking for a metro or big planes, just water."
Under regular temperatures of 48 degrees or more, Basra’s overloaded grid routinely buckles under the strain of so many people reaching for fans and air conditioners. The area’s water supply, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, regularly dwindles in the summer months, as taps in Baghdad keep running.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and development funding have poured into Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. But living conditions across much of the country and particularly the south are abject.
“Fifteen years after the change of order in Iraq, it’s the same problem. The central government is unable or unwilling to address problems across the board in Iraq. The corruption is endemic, the government’s inability to deal with it is endemic, and the protests are endemic,” said Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann.
Renad Mansour, a research fellow at Chatham House, said the feeling of betrayal was personal for many Iraqis.
“Iraqis look at their leaders and they can see what’s going on. They say, ‘you have become wealthy over the last five years, you’ve built a system that benefits you, and now you say are going to fight it?’
“The sense of disillusionment is very high in Iraq at the moment. People don’t believe the political process serves them and they don’t believe they can bring about change institutionally,” he said.
These protests occur during a time of political transition, as the country awaits the final results of a recount of May’s national election. Just 44.5 per cent of people voted, compared to a typical turnout of above 60 per cent. Allegations of irregularities fraud were rampant.
The spark that lit the protests came when Iran, which supplies much of southern Iraq’s electricity, cut the region off last Saturday, citing an unpaid bill of around $1 billion.
Protests boiled over on Tuesday, after security forces at a Basra demonstration the following day, killing one and wounding five.
Demonstrations spread into neighbouring Maysan province and further afield. Participants burned tyres, stormed government buildings and Najaf airport, causing damages to the passenger terminal and delaying flights. Following the incident, Kuwait Airways, Royal Jordanian and FlyDubai suspended flights into Najaf.
As security forces cracked down, demonstrators have persisted, seizing an opportunity, according to analyst Mr Mansour.
“People saw in 2016, when they stormed the Green Zone, that Abadi was forced to change some ministers. So now, to have these protests happening as the government is being formed is significant.”
Activists said it was becoming more difficult for citizens to communicate and plan demonstrations without internet access or the use of social media, but protests continued Saturday night and Sunday.
Protesters forced authorities to close the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf, and said they planned to march to the border crossings with Kuwait and Iran.
In Baghdad, hundreds of people poured into Tahrir Square and the eastern Shiite district of Sadr City. Some demonstrators break into the Badr Organization’s office in Sadr City, prompting guards to open fire.