The land of the Bani-Mansour clan north-east of Basra is flat and parched, spattered with dry crusts of salt and thorny shrubs. Clusters of palm trees form small patches of green in the otherwise dusty yellow and brown landscape.
Nestled among them are about a dozen berms, each enclosing an oil well and its pump. Pipelines snake over the ground, cutting through villages as they connect wells and pumping stations. Oil rigs tower over the southern Iraq landscape, sending plumes of thick black smoke across the horizon.
The land sits above the West Qurna oilfield. One of the most lucrative in the world, it is owned by the Iraqi government and run by Exxon Mobil. After years of sanctions and neglect, oil production in southern Iraq is picking up. A two-lane road that crosses the Bani-Mansour land has become a busy highway for trucks carrying drilling equipment and busses ferrying foreign oil workers back and forth. The windows of nearby homes rattle as the traffic passes.
The opening up of Iraq’s enormous verified oil reserves to foreign expertise in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein was hailed as the means to kickstart its economy and potentially transform the south into an economic stronghold. Instead, ordinary Iraqis have seen little or no benefit from the proceeds of the country’s multibillion dollar oil industry, much of which has been siphoned off by corrupt politicians. Across the south in recent months, simmering anger over corruption and unemployment has been fuelled by the dire state of public services, regular power cuts and water shortages.
The oil companies, which are supposed to train and hire a workforce from local populations and invest back into development projects, are forced to hire those with connections to powerful tribal sheikhs and the Islamist parties. Funds for those populations rarely materialise and almost none of the oil revenuestrickle down to the population. Meanwhile local militias with links to clans and political parties have formed their own companies, which land lucrative security contracts with subsidiaries of foreign oil firms.
In the eyes of the local villagers, the heavy traffic rumbling along the narrow road has become a daily reminder of the contrast between the boundless wealth lying underneath their homes and the abject poverty above ground.
‘They had brought two helicopters and three armoured vehicles'
The flashpoint came in early July, when the temperature soared to nearly 50C, the electricity failed repeatedly, and the tap water ran hot and as salty as sea water. Two dozen men gathered outside the gates of one of the oil company compounds, blocking the section of the road adjacent to their village. Under the scorching Iraqi summer sun, they stomped their feet, raised their arms and angrily denounced the oil firms and the politicians.
A police unit stationed in the compound moved out to face the protesters while a larger army unit in charge of protecting the oil fields arrived in armoured vehicles. The two units sandwiched the protesters, who started pelting the armoured vehicles with stones. The soldiers and police responded with live ammunition, and within half an hour a young protester had been killed and three others injured.
In the villages surrounding the compound, men called each other and headed out to help neighbours and relatives, swelling the size of the demonstration to a few hundred people.
That night, other communities in oil-rich areas held protests and the next day large demonstrations were held in Basra, spreading to other southern cities a few days later. Across the south tens of thousands of people took to the streets. Some called for better electricity and water supplies, others demanded employment – but everyone denounced the corruption and nepotism of the political parties. Party headquarters were attacked and ransacked.
Much of the anger was directed at Iran, which has also been beset by weeks of street protests over economic grievances. Many of the Iraqi protesters saw Iran as the protector of Iraq’s corrupt political parties. “Iran out out” was a common chant. In one instance, a large picture of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, was set on fire.
“People are out demanding their rights,” said Ali. “They see that Iraq is dying, strangled by these parties that have been looting us for 15 years but who are more interested in serving Iranian interests than our interests. We either save the country or it will be lost.”
Now, in the post-Isis era, a Sunni revolt toppling the state is no longer considered a viable threat. Instead it is the Shia majority, who shed blood defending the country from Isis who are questioning the legitimacy of the Iraqi state. About 500 men from the Bani-Mansour community were killed fighting the Islamist group.
The government has responded to the protests with violence, firing live rounds and killing at least 11 people. Hundreds have been detained and tortured, according to activists, lawyers and security officials who spoke to the Guardian. Some are still missing.
Paramilitaries associated with political parties were also accused of opening fire and abducting protesters. A prominent lawyer who was leading a team defending detained protesters was shot by masked men after leaving a police station.
‘The whole system is rotten and needs to be toppled’
I met Ali in a tin shack of a restaurant, tucked down a small lane shaded by palm trees, not far from the oilfields. He had invited his friend Haytham, a soldier and a farmer, to join us.
“We are really sorry for not inviting you to our homes,” said Ali with embarrassment. “But we rarely spend time there anymore, we have to move between relatives houses to avoid detention.”
In the past few weeks, Ali and Haytham have received threatening calls from the security forces. Seven of their fellow demonstrators in their village have been snatched at night by masked and armed men.
“ “In Basra you see the wealth pouring out of the community every day – from oilfields over there, less than a kilometre from where we are sitting – and then you see the poverty and lack of employment in the villages, while companies import thousands of foreign workers,” Ali said.
Haytham joined the Iraqi army in 2003 and fought to defend his country against Sunni insurgents, al-Qaida and Isis. Now he sees it as his duty to oppose the state. As he spoke, the complaints came tumbling from his mouth: brackish and salty water, power cuts, pollution from oil companies, a collapse in the healthcare system, , dried up rivers, unemployment …
“I am not out on the streets for a job,” he said. “I have a salary and my land. I am protesting because what kind of a country do I want to leave for my children? What kind of education will they get in schools where teachers don’t show up and demand bribes for good grades?”
“These parties are responsible for the 15 years of failure,” Ali said. “In previous elections we all voted for the Shia parties because that is what the clergy and tribal sheikhs told us to do. Now we are holding the clergy responsible. Have they not seen what has been happening for 15 years?”
“While we were trapped in the sectarian war – the Shia killing the Sunnis in revenge for the death of Imam Husayn 14 centuries ago, and the Sunnis butchering us because they accused us of taking power from them. Sunni and Shia politicians sat in the parliament and built fortunes with the blood of the people who massacred each other in the street.”
“The whole system is rotten and has to be toppled,” said Haytham. “We are peaceful, but each of us sits on a warehouse of weapons. In 15 years 1 million Iraqis have been martyred. Had we held demonstrations early on and lost a thousand people we would be in a better place now.”
“I feel sorry for those demonstrators, there is no hope that they will succeed,” a government official said as he sipped Turkish coffee in the lobby of one of Basra’s big hotels. He is in his thirties, well-educated, and had worked with western companies in Basra before he landed a highly coveted job in the city council.
“All these parties, they have economic committees that get a share from every single government contract, while their paramilitary wings protect their interests,” he said. “I know they are corrupt, because I am one of the pillars of that corruption in this city,” he added with remarkable candour.
The official explained how a Basra clan with connections to more than one religious party took over large tracts of agricultural land that either belonged to wealthy families from the Gulf or Sunnis who have fled since the outbreak of sectarian war in 2003-04. The clan turned the land into lucrative residential plots. His job was to issue fake certificates confirming the land was residential.
Waste from houses built without connections to proper sewage and water networks clogged canals and rivers, turning them into stagnating swamps and further degrading the environment, which in turn made farmers’ lives even harder.
But the protests show no sign of abating. On 14 August police broke up a sit-in at an oil instillation in Qurna, killing one person. Another person later died in custody. Two days later demonstrators set the Qurna city council building alight in response to the deaths. Every Friday big protest marches have taken place in Basra.
Much like its stagnating rivers and canals, Iraqi democracy has become a victim of a never-ending cycle of corruption. Words like election, parliament and democracy have become synonymous with corruption, nepotism and sectarianism. Many of the demonstrators are making ominous demands for a strong presidential system and an end to parliament.
Mzahem al Timimi, a newly elected, independent member of parliament in Basra, said the demonstrations did not stem from salty water and electricity cuts alone. “We are used to the heat and salty water from the Saddam times,” Timimi said. “But back then we were under sanctions. The problem now is that we have money [from oil] but it is not being used to help the people.
“The people of Basra were patient until they couldn’t bear it anymore.”
The demonstrators wanted a revolution because they did not have trust that the system could reform itself, Timimi said. “In the past 15 years all the parties that have ruled this country were responsible for corruption. There is no party that can lead the reform because they all have been part of the same corruption mechanism.”
Timimi struck a despondent tone as he pondered the alternatives.
“We are obsessed with the idea of the saviour. Some say the Americans will come to save us, others say the military should take over, like in Egypt. But there is no united army that can impose a state of emergency, there is no military institution. The army has no leaders. How could it lead the country?
“If we topple the current regime tomorrow, who are we going to bring in after?”