Iraq’s Southern Intifada: Mere Demands or a Popular Revolution?

The successive governments that have come to power in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 have failed to run the country’s internal affairs effectively and to secure the basic needs of Iraqi society. These governments have been led by the Shia Islamic Daawa Party that has lacked competent leadership, especially during the reign of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who was accused of corruption and wasting public funds. In fact, Maliki arguably tops the list of Iraqi officials who should be held accountable for corruption, loss of the public’s wealth, and the failure of infrastructure, health, and power projects, which cost Iraq hundreds of millions of dollars.

For Basra to be the cradle of these protests is quite a surprise. The city is the Shia stronghold in the south where sectarian slogans and clerical dominance over public opinion have been able to align the southern Iraqi region behind the ruling Shia parties.

Over the last few weeks, and starting with Basra, Iraq has witnessed a popular uprising that was triggered by poor public services. The death and injury of scores of protesters escalated the situation. The protests quickly changed from demands for better services to calls to end political control of Iraqi institutions by Iran and its militias and loyalist parties. Several parties’ headquarters were burned down while a number of firms operating in oil-rich Basra were targeted.

For Basra to be the cradle of these protests is quite a surprise. The city is the Shia stronghold in the south where sectarian slogans and clerical dominance over public opinion have been able to align the southern Iraqi region behind the ruling Shia parties. Other factors that contributed to this support include public fears about the possibility of a return by the Baath Party and deep concerns about the so-called Islamic State (IS), following its control of Mosul and wide areas in central, western, and northwestern Iraq. In addition, the ambiguous American position regarding the need to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria helped convince the Shia public that they were obliged to support the central government controlled by the Shia sectarian parties, regardless of their mistakes in running the country.

The evident failure of the government to provide services such as electricity, particularly during the hot months of summer, prompted the Shia communities in Iraq to believe that they had been exploited by corrupt politicians and made to sacrifice their lives to serve foreign schemes. Examples include the heavy price of supporting the Syrian regime or fighting IS in Iraq, which would not have gained ground had the leader of the Daawa Party, Nouri al-Maliki, not ordered the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Mosul in 2014, leaving behind a military arsenal for IS to capture.

The current caretaker Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to send calming messages from Brussels, where he was attending the annual meeting of the counterterrorism coalition held on the margins of the NATO summit. Eventually, he flew to Basra to meet with heads of tribes and public opinion leaders in an attempt to put an end to the protests, but he was unsuccessful. It was obvious that the patchwork package that he offered was inadequate to satisfy public demands. The mass response was to burn down the Shia parties’ headquarters and a large portrait of the late Ayatollah Khomeini in a main square in Basra.

As he searched for a reasonable solution to the escalating crisis, Abadi’s meetings with security officials and party leaders seemed to be more important to him than those with technocrats and officers in service ministries.

Militias opened fire at the protesters who targeted the parties’ headquarters, resulting in casualties. There are allegations that Iranian agents participated in raiding the Russian Lukoil’s operations center, dismantling and stealing critical equipment. This forced the firm to call for help to evacuate its staff. It is evident that confrontation is the policy of choice for these parties and militias in response to the peaceful protesters’ chants and sit-ins, which clearly showed that Iran and its militias are not welcome in Iraq.

The protests spread quickly to the central and southern Shia governorates, including Najaf where protesters chanted loudly against Shia political parties and their militias. The main offices of these parties, including Daawa, Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma Movement, and the Fatah Party of Hadi al-Amiri, who is also the leader of the Badr militia, were burned down after the militias opened fire on the protesters. It seems that Premier Abadi has chosen—or has been made to choose—confrontation with the protesters; as he searched for a reasonable solution to the escalating crisis, his meetings with security officials and party leaders seemed to be more important to him than those with technocrats and officers in service ministries. Further, there are no guarantees that the Sunni and Kurdish governorates will remain passive. Many tribal leaders from the largest Iraqi governorate of Anbar, expressed support for the southern uprising, condemning the use of force against it and asking Sunni enlistees in security forces to refrain from opening fire at the peaceful protesters. It might be useful at this point to recall that the same Anbar tribes were subject to sectarian discrimination and government violence when they protested against Maliki in 2013.

Haider al-Abadi is the product of the Shia-oriented Daawa Party, which is led by Maliki and supported by Iran, and has turned down appeals to distance himself from Daawa which has failed to run the Iraqi state for 12 years—eight of them with Maliki as prime minister. Under his premiership, Maliki widened the sectarian gap in Iraq, wasted public funds, and promoted corruption to the point of institutionalization, making it too hard to combat. Nevertheless, Abadi still attached his loyalty to the Daawa Party, which casts doubts on his impartiality toward the protesters’ calls for sacking sectarian-based parties, starting with his own.

Future Scenarios for the Southern Uprising

The uprising that broke out in Basra and spread to the rest of the Shia governorates was not the first of its kind. Large-scale protests had taken place previously in the six western Sunni governorates, in addition to the ongoing Kurdish protests and the 2016 uprising, which the government managed to contain.

The following scenarios summarize the expected outcomes and prospects of the current uprising.

Scenario 1: Continuation and Expansion of the Protests. Evidence indicates that the current uprising has crossed the point of no return in terms of its relationship with the parties and militias that monopolize power. It seems impossible to contain it with sugar-coated words and promises. The unrest could easily expand into the Sunni governorates that have suffered from discrimination and brutal suppression, and into Kurdish areas where the main parties have maintained their control. It was telling that parliamentarian Hushiar Abdullah, of the Kurdish Taghyir (Change) Bloc in Sulaymaniyah, called for Iraq to be under international trusteeship, ending the dominance of the Kurdish and Shia parties and their militias over power and forming a salvation government under international auspices.

Scenario 2: Peaceful Containment. In this case, there would be repetition of past experiences. This would be realized through the religious parties which would use fatwas and calls by religious authorities urging protestors to calm down and allow the government to embark on reforms to address their demands. It will be instructive to observe how events unfold. If the religious authorities call for calm, many Shia youth may be forced to accept in deference to traditional Shia doctrine. If, however, the religious authorities call for realizing the protesters’ demands, the government will likely not be able to respond effectively because of the enormity of the task and the weakness of the state’s institutions and apparatuses due to corruption and incompetence. Other reasons include the government’s dire financial crisis and the weakness of the Iraqi economy. This may subsequently lead to a schism between the government, the Shia parties, and their militias, on one side, and the public on the other that in turn could lead to violence.

Scenario 3: Violent Suppression. The parties and militias are pushing in this direction, under the pretext that vandalism is taking place against public facilities and infrastructure. The protesters’ occupation of Najaf International Airport, closure of the airport, and suspension of flights by international airlines provided a justification to resort to suppression. Security forces began to disband the protests and detained a number of young people while several others were killed by the militias or by security forces. Some were tortured to death.

What may be ascertained is a possibility for the situation to become more chaotic.

The United Nations has realized the gravity of the situation. It directed an appeal, through its Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), to the government of Iraq to address the demands of the protesters.

What may be ascertained is a possibility for the situation to become more chaotic, especially because of the caretaker nature of the current government, the hegemony of the Iran-supported militias, and the possibility of Iranian intervention through the Quds Force and its leader Qassem Suleimani. This may lead to adverse results, causing the unrest to spread to the remaining governorates. The dormant cells of the Islamic State may take advantage of the situation to revive IS activities not only in western and northwestern Iraq, but also in the southern governorates due to the dramatic changes in political and economic conditions in the country.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here