Recent violent protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra have brought to light years of suffering by Iraqis in what is known as the economic capital of Iraq due to its vast oil reserves and deep-sea port access connecting the country to the international market. Basra, a predominantly Shiite city, also has a significant minority population, including black Iraqis and Christians. It is Iraq’s second-largest city and has developed a reputation for fostering some of Iraq’s greatest artists. During the first Gulf War, the Iraqi military used Basra as a route for the Kuwait invasion; ironically, a decade later, U.S.-led forces used it as a path toward Baghdad during the 2003 invasion, the Foreign Policy reported on Saturday.
The current crisis in Basra is not a recent development. It stems from years of inattention from both the international community and the Iraqi government.
Increased civil unrest in the region has been exacerbated by the government’s focus on defeating ISIS in northern Iraq and unequal distribution of resources, making the current situation both expected and preventable. Basra’s once glorious canals, winding through a city previously known as the Venice of the Middle East, are now open-air sewers.
Following successful military operations against ISIS, most of the international focus has been on celebrating the liberation of northern Iraq and reconstruction of these areas. With most national and international attention focused on reconciling Iraq’s diverse communities in these liberated areas, Iraq’s predominantly Shiite southern cities have been neglected and their relative stability taken for granted.
Demonstrations and ensuing clashes with government security forces throughout this summer led to 27 deaths by the end of September, as well as the unsolved assassination of the women’s rights and anti-corruption activist Soad al-Ali. These protests, reflecting Iraqi anger about government corruption, also highlighted the lack of job opportunities and poor public services in the southern city. The protests not only targeted Iraqi officials but also foreign powers for their perceived role in supporting ineffective kleptocratic elites, with attacks on both the U.S. and Iranian consulates in Basra.
More than 80 percent of Iraq’s total GDP comes from the oil-rich area around Basra, which, being Iraq’s only province with coastal access, is also the country’s only port for exporting oil by sea. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Iraq’s oil resources are located in Basra province, the budget allocated for the region by the central government doesn’t reflect that wealth.
Indeed, the Iraqi government and the international community have neglected the region while disproportionately focusing development assistance in northern Iraq. The south’s security situation is deteriorating, and poverty levels are rising as a result. This is particularly worrying because many young southerners who fought to defeat ISIS are now destitute.
The rise of ISIS in Iraq temporarily served as a uniting force, with many Iraqis in the south concerned by the threat posed by the terrorist group. This concern famously triggered the call for volunteer fighters by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric—a call answered principally by the predominantly Shiite youths of Iraq’s southern cities, who made up the majority of IMIS.
These heavily armed, trained, and experienced fighters are now returning to their home cities in southern Iraq, including Basra, to face deprivation. Confounded by international and local calls for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, these former fighters, having risked their lives to fight ISIS, are now being left jobless and sometimes homeless as Iraq’s debilitated economy is unable to continue providing salaries for an expanding security sector. Their situation threatens ongoing stability in Iraq. And their grievances are aggravated by the fact that reconstruction and redevelopment funds are being directed only toward the land that they risked their lives to liberate.
The United Nations Development Program, in the first quarter of 2018, dedicated upwards of $153 million toward northern Iraq, with similar programs focused on these liberated areas by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Britain’s Department for International Development, and other international actors. Similarly, a lack of development opportunities and governmental corruption prior to 2014 in Mosul and the surrounding areas resulted in the rise of ISIS in Iraq.