Who turned out the lights in Iraq?

#InsideIraq

While Iraq’s politicians sit in air-conditioned offices, normal Iraqis deal with risks such as heatstroke and incessant power cuts

Tallha Abdulrazaq's picture
Thursday 6 August 2015 11:52 UTC
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Tempers, as well as temperatures, are flaring in Iraq. Already a hot country, Iraq has been afflicted by unusually sweltering temperatures since the end of Ramadan, rising at times to above a searing 60 degrees Celsius. With the war against the forces of the Islamic State (IS) group showing no signs of letting up, particularly in the arid desert of Iraq’s western Anbar Province, and news of the mounting losses of Baghdad-aligned forces, one would think that the government of Haidar al-Abadi would be doing their utmost to keep morale high.

Not so for the bizarre, sectarian and thoroughly corrupt Iraqi government, which would prefer to risk increasing internal instability during a war than to just let Iraqis live in peace. In light of this inexplicable behaviour, one must also question just how much IS really is seen as an existential threat.

Unable to contain their frustrations, Iraqis across the country began protesting the lack of services, particularly electricity. In the scorching Iraqi heat, it is not difficult to see why these demonstrations have arisen, with Iraqis frustrated at a political class that is completely insensitive to the woes of the common citizen. While Iraq’s politicians sit in publicly funded and air-conditioned offices, ministerial buildings and even homes that enjoy a constant supply of electricity, the normal Iraqi has to deal with risks such as heatstroke and incessant power cuts.

The power grid usually provides electricity for a meagre five hours a day, with even less power provided to more rural and disconnected areas. Compounding the issue, areas where there is fighting against IS forces either have no power, or else IS sells generator fuel to impoverished Iraqis at massively inflated prices, likely as a way of further bolstering its war chest. So why is it that, almost 13 years since Iraq was obliterated as a state and invaded by the allegedly progressive forces of the West, the Iraqi government has failed to provide any services at all?

The answer is, quite simply, corruption. “Serving” in pubic office, and I use the term with more than a hint of sarcasm, is seen as a way of furthering one’s own personal and business interests, and is even seen as a business in and of itself with a (un)healthy system of bribes and favours in place. In this environment of profiteering, nepotism and moral bankruptcy, the only ones who manage to sustain themselves politically are those who partake in this corrupt system, the Iraqi population be damned.

The insouciance, indifference and contempt shown by the Iraqi political class, dominated by Iran-aligned Shia but aided by certain Sunnis such as the Iraqi Islamic Party and wealthy elites such as Atheel and Osama al-Nujaifi, is nothing new. This disrespect for the normal Iraqi citizen is demonstrated by such politicians as Ahmad Chalabi, one of the key figures behind the American fabrications about Iraqi WMDs and a man convicted of financial fraud in neighbouring Jordan. Chalabi, in parliament and without a care that it would be captured on camera, said, “Let the fathers of the [Iraqi] people be damned.”

Indeed, why should he care when the Iraqi people seemingly have no power to hold these politicians to account? Some might say that common decency and a desire to help Iraq rebuild should be reason enough without the need for oversight and rigorous accountability, but those who say this are naïve and do not understand the nature of Iraqi politics whereby change can seemingly only come about by way of active and organised resistance. Even then, you are gambling with your life by attending peaceful protests, as sectarian Vice President Nouri al-Maliki demonstrated when he started this present war that allowed IS to grow by slaughtering peaceful Sunni Arab protesters.

Some Sunnis have speculated that Maliki is the key instigator behind the sudden appearance of these protests, in an attempt to destabilise the government of his rival and prime ministerial successor, Abadi. Although they are both from the Da’wa Party and supported by Iran, some may recall that Maliki threatened to use force to cling to office, but was eventually “encouraged” to leave by America and Iran.

This narrative seems like it might have some credibility, but it also neglects the fact that in 2012-2013, and as part of the wider protest movement against the Green Zone regime’s persecution of the Sunnis, Sunnis similarly demonstrated against a lack of services, not just political marginalisation. This even occurred in Mosul, and was met with fierce police brutality, leading to the deaths of protesters and likely contributing to the ease with which IS was able to infiltrate the city.

Although the current protests began primarily in regions where the Shia power base is particularly strong, such as Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar, Karbala and Basra, they have now even spread as far as Suleimaniya in the Kurdish-controlled north. While the Kurds have their own electricity problems not necessarily linked to Baghdad, it is highly unlikely that Maliki would have the resources and connections to instigate a protest in Kurdish-controlled areas, and such unrest would destabilise Kurdish leader Barzani, and not Abadi.

These claims by members of the Sunni opposition are largely a reaction to the silence they experienced from the southern Shia Iraqis, and the general lack of solidarity they showed when the Sunni protest movement began. The lack of large-scale involvement of the Shia masses, even after repeated requests by the Sunni protesters to join them, led to a feeling of abandonment and incredulity, particularly as the corruption and lack of openness affected all Iraqis and not just Sunnis. This was later supported by televised statements made by senior Shia politicians such as Izzat Shahbandar, saying, “When we took over the governing [of Iraq], tell me one good thing that we did? I’ll tell you. We let them [the Shia] beat themselves in freedom, and we let them think that the biggest [political] gain was to walk from Basra to Karbala,” a reference to Shia religious rituals. Shahbandar recognised that the new political class, heavily influenced by Iran and their American kingmakers, had done nothing for Iraqis, Sunni or Shia.

With Iraqi crowds carrying banners saying that they will “topple the government with electricity”, a direct threat and reference to their grievance, this Friday will be a benchmark to see if these protests have any staying power.

The previous Iraqi demonstrations in 2012-2013 were derailed by violence, but were swept under the rug because the violence predominantly targeted Sunnis. Will the Iraqi government resort to violence once more to quell their own Shia power base? If so, arguably IS will not be the only existential threat to the government, but a broad-based Iraqi revolt that will upend 13 years of corruption, embezzlement and mismanagement, and perhaps reform some of the old sense of unity between Iraq’s different ethnicities and sects.

- Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy & Security Institute, and winner of the Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. He blogs at thewarjournal.co.uk and tweets from @thewarjournal

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A young Iraqi girl collects water for her family (AFP)