As temperatures soared over 120 degrees each day and the government’s promises of more electricity proved hollow again, people in the city of Basra in southern Iraq took to the streets. Government offices were attacked, the police responded with firing into the crowd and made arrests, local officials came out in support of the demonstrators, while the Electricity Ministry tried to appease them. This was the third straight year that anger has boiled over in the city. Each time Baghdad has made some superficial concessions to the public, but then eventually turned to force to stop the protests if they continued. That could be repeated again this summer if the protests last for any lengthy period of time.
Demonstrations started in Basra city in mid-July 2012. The first was reportedly on July 22, and was caused by the lack of electricity. Two days later, people blocked off streets and set fire to tires, while they threw rocks at a government building. The police broke up the protest by firing live rounds into the air, and making arrests. The Mayor of Basra complained about 16 hour power outages during the summer, and charged Baghdad with ignoring the problem. The governor of the Basra called on the Electricity Ministry to dismiss the manager in charge of power transmission in southern Iraq for failing to do his job. Two parliamentarians from the province said that people had legitimate complaints about the lack of services, and one blamed corruption in the government, especially in the Electricity Ministry as being the cause. Back in Basra, protesters promised more actions in the future if their demands were not met, going as far as threatening to attack the oil pipelines that run through the governorate. On July 28, the Electricity Ministry responded to the governor’s demands by firing the manager, and claimed that the power outages were due to a technical problem with overflowing three transmission lines. In addition, the Ministry said that it would provide electricity from two stations to the province. The central government is in a dilemma when it comes to these matters. While it blamed technical issues, the real problem is that production cannot keep up with demand. Electricity has increased in the last several years, but it has never caught up with the huge increase in usage since 2003. The Ministry makes continued announcements about new power plants coming on line, and that the country’s shortages are just about to be solved, but they never come to fruition. Currently, Baghdad is claiming that it will solve the country’s power problems by the end of 2013.The failure of past promises was a major reason why people in Basra were so angry at the authorities, not because of any temporary transmission issues. They have heard enough of these empty words, and want to see real action be taken.
That anger is why there have been protests in Basra for the last three years. In June 2010, there were demonstrations over the lack of electricity. At the time, there was only an average of two hours of power a day from the national grid. On the first day, 3,000 people attended a march. The protests quickly spread to Dhi Qar, Anbar, Wasit, and Diyala provinces. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by pushing out the Electricity Minister Karim Wahid al-Hasan who resigned, and naming then Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani, a close ally of the premier, as his replacement. At the same time, Maliki issued orders to the Interior Ministry to put an end to the street actions. New restrictive rules were put in place, the police were authorized to use force against demonstrations, and organizers were rounded up effectively putting an end to that year’s events. When the Arab Spring reached Iraq in January 2012, some of the first protests were in Basra, which again focused upon electricity and services. As the demonstrations grew and dragged into the summer, the prime minister once again turned to the use of force. 2010 and 2011 set the pattern for how Baghdad would response to outbursts in Basra. At first, there were comments about more energy coming soon along with reforms to the government. Then, when people refused to cease their actions, and be appeased by these carrots, the prime minister would resort to the stick, and called out the security forces.
Iraq is no closer to solving its chronic electricity problems today than it was five years ago. The central government has proven again and again that it cannot execute its grand plans for building dozens of power plants, and expanding the national grid. That’s leading to increasing anger as people have taken to the streets for three straight years now. Basra has been at the center of all this. The public there believes that it should be enjoying the spoils of the wealth that it generates from its oil fields, which funds the entire country. Instead, people find themselves enduring some of the highest temperatures in the country with little power and other essential services. What has happened in Basra has also proven to be a catalyst for the rest of Iraq since when protests have broken out there they have spread to other provinces as well. That’s why the recent events could shape the rest of the summer. If demonstrations continue they may start in other areas leading to a replay of 2010 and 2011. Maliki will then respond with concessions, and then use the security forces to break up the protesters as he has done before. The inability to meet the demands of the public has been a trademark of the new Iraq. Frustration is growing as a result, and street actions and subsequent crackdowns may become an annual event as a result.
Al-Mada, “Signs of spring and the hot Iraqi Basra vows to cut off oil supplies,” 7/27/12
Al Saadi, Ahmed, “Basra threaten protests more violent against Al-Maliki and oil supply,” Shatt News, 7/26/12
Al-Sabah, “Basra repeatedly invoke the wrath of 2010 and on the promise of electricity <
Shafaq News, “Electricity ministry announces dismissing General manager of energy transmission in the South,” 7/28/12
- “Ministry of Electricity agree to supply Basra with two additional stations,” 7/28/12
Sotaliraq, “MPs threaten Basra, led by popular demonstrations demanding better services in their wallets,” 7/24/12