07/18/2018, 18.25
IRAQ
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US-Iran confrontation reaches southern Iraq

by Pierre Balanian

People face water and power shortages as well as high unemployment with temperatures topping 45 degrees. Abadi, who had to get out of Basra through the backdoor, is under threat. Given power shortages, he has turned to Saudi Arabia after Iran turned off the switch because of Iraq’s failure to pay its bills. Meanwhile, Grand Ayatollah Al Sistani has given his blessing to the protest movement.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Residents in Iraq’s mostly Shia southern provinces are in their second week of mass demonstrations, protesting against problems that have existed for more than 20 years and getting worse each passing year at the arrival of the hot season.

Water but especially power shortages are the main bones of contention in summer time when temperatures do not fall below 45 Celsius at night. Unable to use air conditioning or fans, people end up sleeping on terraces whenever there are no sandstorms.

Fuelling the unrest are the high cost of living, low salaries, high youth unemployment, inadequate healthcare services, low-quality education, and rampant corruption.

This year’s protests have been stepped up and morphed into unrest. Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi arrived in Basra, a protest stronghold last week, to calm the waters but had to leave the Sheraton Hotel through the back door to escape the wrath of menacing protesters who had broken through security details.

Yesterday, in a major Basra street, someone tried to show similar displeasure by burning a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Abadi, whose mandate has expired, intends to hold onto power by setting up an emergency government set to last two years, with Washington’s blessing. One of his latest measures was in fact to cut the number of visas to Iraq for Iranians, just as the United States boosted its embargo against Iran.

If we analyse the damage caused by some looters, foreign influence cannot be excluded. The protesters’ demands include "Basra's oil for Basra", i.e. the return of the oil fields of Al Rumaila, Gharb al-Qarna, al-Majnun and al-Sayba; the end of contracts with foreign oil companies; and the replacement of foreign staff with Iraqi workers.

The first three aforementioned oil fields are among the largest in the world and Basra's oil patch export 3 million barrels a day, far more than Iran (2.8 barrels per day), through the Gulf.

After the US threatened to stop Iranian oil exports via the Gulf, and Iran’s counter threat to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 88% of all Gulf oil leaves), any stop in the export of Iraqi crude oil can only benefit Tehran in its cold war with the United States.

Blessed by a fatwa issued by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who supports the demands of southern Iraq’s oppressed and forgotten, the unrest shows no sign of slowing down.

Unable to provide security relying on Iraq’s police and army alone, Abadi can only turn to the Popular Mobilisation Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha'abi), the Shia paramilitary militias who played a leading role in the liberation of the country from Daesh (Islamic State), even though he knows that they are beholden to Tehran.

For its, Iran has refused to renew the contract for the sale of electricity to Iraq, apparently because the latter has not been able to pay its bills. This has deprived southern Iraq of 1,300 megawatts.

Prime Minister Abadi immediately instructed the Electricity Minister Qasim al-Fahadawi to travel to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected this week, to sign a memorandum of understanding with Riyadh to buy Saudi electricity.

After ten years, Iran stopped supplying power at the start of July, which should have earned it in theory US$ 6 billion. According to opposition media, Iraq could have build up to 12 power stations with that kind of money.

By turning to Saudi Arabia, Abadi seems to have chosen his camp, but it remains unclear how long he can resist the tug of war between the US and Iran.

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