BAGHDAD — Widespread protests over miserable living conditions in southern Iraq continued Friday, but demonstrators largely avoided confronting a large deployment of police and military.
Throughout the southern provinces and in the capital, protesters gathered in large public squares and demanded reforms while also chanting “silmiyah,” or “peaceful.”
Tensions briefly flared in Baghdad when protesters began marching from Liberation Square toward a bridge leading to the fortified Green Zone. Police responded with water cannons, prompting demonstrators to throw bottles and chant: “The people demand the fall of the system!” — the signature slogan of the Arab Spring demonstrators in 2011. The skirmish lasted only a few minutes.
The largely peaceful rallies were a striking departure from earlier demonstrations that began nearly two weeks ago at which protesters attacked government buildings, political party headquarters and oil company offices.
The protests have been precipitated, in part, by a crisis over water and electricity supplies. These shortages come amid oppressive summer temperatures, bringing air conditioners and fans to a halt, and at a time when a punishing drought is forcing farmers to abandon summer crops.
These hardships are on top of a decade of inconsistent services, particularly in Iraq’s Shiite heartland. Meanwhile, public euphoria over the government’s defeat last year of the Islamic State is fading.
The street unrest has unsettled the Iraqi government during a halting political transition, following national elections in May, and alarmed Iraq’s neighbors.
Kuwait, which borders Iraq’s southernmost province, Basra, began providing daily barge deliveries of 130,000 cubic liters of fuel for Iraqi electricity stations on Friday, according to an Iraqi government spokesman. Kuwaiti officials had been concerned that sustained violence could send waves of Iraqi refugees across the border.
Kuwait has also expressed readiness to help with water desalination projects in Iraq, the spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, said.
Saudi Arabia has also pledged support for Iraq’s overloaded energy sector, Hadithi said, and an Iraqi cabinet delegation is expected to travel to Riyadh to begin talks in the coming days. Saudi Arabia has sought closer economic and political ties with Iraq as the kingdom looks to counter Iran’s outsized influence in Baghdad.
The country’s creaking electricity system took another hit recently when Iran halted energy supplies to Iraq. The suspension of energy exports was due to Iranian concerns over the impact of U.S. sanctions on Tehran and a dispute over Iraqi payments.
“I don’t think this problem will be solved in the next few months, and this is why we are going to Saudi instead,” al-Hadithi said.
Iraqis have increasingly turned their attention to the 15 years of poor governance that has bedeviled their country since the U.S. invasion. The result has been pervasive corruption and conditions ripe for the emergence of extremist groups like the Islamic State.
“People are upset over the performance of the government since 2003, and they don’t believe any of the promises prime minister has given,” Muhannad al-Khafaji, a 30-year-old who has been demonstrating daily in Basra.
Residents of Basra, which produces and exports the vast majority of Iraq’s oil, have long complained they do not benefit from it. They have accused regional government officials of malfeasance, leaving their city decrepit and vulnerable to a bustling illicit drug trade.
Demonstrators also expressed anger at the political deadlock that has followed Iraq’s national election. Marred by reports of significant fraud and historically low turnout, the vote is undergoing a full recount, which has delayed the formation of a new government and the election of a new prime minister.
The apparent winners of the election have been struggling to respond to the protests, seeking to cast themselves as both sympathetic to the demonstrators’ demands while upholding the imperative of peaceful dissent.
On Thursday, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose coalition won the most seats in the election and is expected to retain its leading position after the recount, called on political blocs to halt negotiations over a new government until protesters’ demands are met.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seeking to retain his position despite coming in third in the May election, initially struggled to contain the protests. Security forces had met the demonstrators with water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition in cities such as Basra and Najaf — killing at least eight people and wounding hundreds more, including security forces in violent clashes.
As part of the crackdown, the government cut off Internet access last week, leading protesters and Amnesty International to accuse Abadi of giving security forces cover to abuse demonstrators. Abadi’s government has denied the charge and has restored Internet access but continues to block social media sites. Some 300 demonstrators who were arrested have been released.
This week, Abadi adopted a conciliatory posture toward the protesters, saying their right to express their displeasure is protected by the Iraqi constitution. He called on his cabinet to implement emergency measures to expedite electricity and water projects in the south while inviting delegations of tribal leaders to meet in Baghdad.
At the same time, he deployed specialized police units and two brigades of the elite Counterterrorism Service to southern provinces to guard oil facilities and government buildings.
While the moves have reduced tensions, some demonstrators said they have not gone far enough and have not addressed their central demand that provincial officials and some government ministers be immediately dismissed. These protesters pledged to continue their sit-ins until they are satisfied that real reforms are coming.