Protests erupted in early July in major southern Iraqi cities including Karbala, Najaf and Basra as anger boiled over the level of public services offered in the oil-rich region. In contrast with violence that has been plaguing central and northwest Iraq, the south has been enjoying a period of relative calm in recent years, making it an attractive site for foreign investors. It is worth noting that the region also plays a vital role in the Iraqi oil industry as 85 percent of the nation’s production and export facilities are based there. Therefore, it is no surprise that the central government is very keen to restore order as soon as possible in order to ensure the continued stability in the region that generates huge amounts of income for the country.

As mentioned, the unrest has mainly been attributed to the failure of the government in providing a decent livelihood for the locals. While unemployment rates were a key concern, the locals were also dismayed with the government’s inability to tackle the high-level of pollution, dirty drinking water and frequent power cuts, which have made the summer heatwave even more challenging. Corruption also played a part in fueling the unrest as some residents who live in the region remain the poorest in the country despite its oil prosperity.

Despite the government’s assurance in providing more jobs and improvements of public services, protests continued in key cities in the region including Basra and Karbala where deadly clashes erupted at times. Government buildings and branches of political parties also came under attack while an oil field in Zubair also witnessed scenes of police forcefully dispersing protesters. Curfews were also being imposed in Najaf as mobs took control of the airport, briefly halting air traffic. As a result, international airlines such as Royal Jordanian and Flydubai suspended flights into the region’s airports as precautionary measures. To date, at least 11 protesters have been killed in almost two weeks of crackdowns by security forces. Sporadic protests have also been taking place in Baghdad and there are worries they could continue spreading across the central and northwest regions where the security situation remains fragile.

With incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi failing to make a breakthrough in forming a government, there have been genuine fears that the unrest could push the country back into a period of instability as experienced during the post-Saddam era. This comes as most Iraqis became disillusioned with the present system, that in their view has only widened the gap between the ruling elites and the general populace. Although there is a strong likelihood that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will form a populist-leaning government filled with technocrats, his mixed reputation among Sunni Muslims could also be an issue that needs to be addressed amidst a fine sectarian divide. Regardless of the outcome of the political negotiations, the incoming leader would have an urgent task to narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and at the same time revamp the government’s image in the public eye so that confidence and order can be restored.

The following is a timeline of events as well as SAFEY reports on the unrest in Iraq:

The unrest started in Basra as local residents expressed their anger about the level of public services in the city by holding mass protests. Within days, protests spread to Najaf and Karbala in which protesters did not only attack government buildings but also attempted to halt oil production at key facilities. Deadly violence also erupted as security forces used heavy-handed tactics to disperse the protesters.

  • First alert by SAFEY on the protest in Basra on 13 July
    • The first alert focused on the protest activity in Umm Qasr port where participants blocked access to the facility. It was one of the focal points of the protest movement. Another alert was also sent on the same day on the protest activity in Najaf.
  • Subsequent alerts by SAFEY as protests spread to other cities between 14-15 July
    • Five alerts were sent out to SAFEY users as the situation escalated with protests spreading to Karbala. Airport operation was halted in Najaf due to the protests. Curfews were later imposed in Basra, Najaf and Karbala to quell the chaos.
  • 8th and 9th alerts by SAFEY on flight suspensions by Flydubai and Royal Jordanian
    • Alerts were sent out to inform users about international airlines’ announcement on flight suspension to Najaf.
  • Further alerts by SAFEY between 16-17 July as protesters attempted to disrupt oilfield operations
    • Protesters gathered near the Zubair and Sita oil and gas fields in order to disruption operations.
  • Alert by SAFEY on 20 July as protests reach Baghdad
    • There were also reports of protests near Baghdad’s Green Zone where clashes have resulted in a casualty.

SAFEY continues to monitor the situation.