BAGHDAD — 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.
Having largely eliminated the threat of Islamic State and cooled — for now — separatist pressures in the Kurdish enclave in the north, the central government ironically finds the greatest challenge to its authority from the Shiite-dominated south, where the failure to provide basic services, infrastructure and economic development have many fuming.
“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 Petroleum Institute in the southern port city of Basra.
Police have fired into demonstrations, killing protesters and further exacerbating tensions. Fourteen demonstrators have been killed and 650 injured since July, according to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights.
Passions have grown so heated that there is talk of creating an autonomous region in the oil-rich south. Many believe some of the profits generated by the governate are being squandered or stolen in the capital.
Walid al-Kitan, head of the Basra Provincial Council, announced a month ago that three-fifths of the 25 members of the local government had signed a petition to establish an independent region of Basra. Basra representatives in the national parliament vowed over the weekend to vote against any new coalition government unless the south’s economic and social grievances are addressed.
Almost half of Iraq’s population is younger than 19, and the youth unemployment rate is 18 percent, according to government statistics. Authorities have arrested hundreds but released most of them if they signed guarantees to stay away from protests, the observatory said.
Those pledges will not stop other Iraqi youths from joining the unrest, said Murtadha Ali, a 22-year-old student at the Basra Technical Institute.
“The atmosphere is desperate,” said Mr. Ali. “There are no less than 400,000 unemployed people in this city of 2 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 while waiting for the Supreme Court to ratify a recount from May’s parliamentary elections. The two largest Shiite-based parties finished in the top two positions, adding to the pressure on Baghdad to deliver for its political base.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a phone call with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, urged Iraqi politicians to form a moderate government. Mr. al-Abadi’s party came in third in the vote.
“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 spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Uncertainty at the top
Mr. al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance gained only 42 seats in an Independent High Electoral Commission recount released last week. The recount found that the bloc allied with nationalist Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr led in the polls but won only 54 seats, too few to form a government without partners in the 329-member parliament.
The Conquest Alliance — a more militant Shiite group led by pro-Iranian paramilitary chiefs — came in second with 47 seats. That party has lost popularity after militias under its control were charged with shooting civilians in protests.
After Iran cut off electric supplies to Iraq in early July in a dispute over power rates, some blamed Tehran for creating the chaos that is destabilizing the country and causing trouble for U.S.-backed Mr. al-Abadi, a moderate Shiite who has tried to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
But protesters in southern Iraq insist they were not doing the bidding of the mullahs in Iran. Instead, they said, corruption and intrigue have ruined Iraqi politics and sent them into the streets in protest.
“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 Iraq’s already low ranking has fallen three places this year in its global Corruption Perceptions Index. Out of a total of 180 countries, Iraq came in at No. 169, putting it behind such countries as Turkmenistan, Angola and Eritrea.
In Najaf, a pilgrimage city and center of Shiite spirituality, protesters were outraged over the ways “religious” politicians enriched themselves at the public trough.
Nearly $72 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 lawyer. “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 International Airport, has become a flashpoint for demonstrations. 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 he was 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 1 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 protesting.
“This generation insists on change and will be heard even if we have to die to end the corruption,” Mr. Chasib said.