The growing unrest in southern Iraq is spreading and in early July became more anti-corruption than anti-Iran. This switch in the target was not encouraged by senior Shia clerics and most of them were slow to give public support to the protestors. Tribal leaders were more in touch with how most Iraqis live and did not encourage protests but also refused government requests that tribal chiefs call for calm. The chiefs point out that the government does nothing for the unemployed tribesmen and if those tribesmen, especially the younger ones, complain, government officials accuse them of working for Iran, Israel. Saudi Arabia or the hated (by Shias) Saddam government. So far the violence has left fifteen dead and over 700 wounded.
This outbreak of violent protests is not unexpected. Similar protests are going on in Iran and for the same reasons. There are differences though because Iraq has not been under any sanctions and is a democracy compared to the religious dictatorship in Iran. Yet it’s been fifteen years since the decades of Iraqi Sunni minority dictatorship was overthrown and democracy gave the Shia Arabs (60 percent of the population) control of the government. This was supposed to make life better for the Shia majority, and the Kurdish minority (20 percent of Iraqis). It hasn’t, mainly because of corruption.
When the Sunni dictatorship was in power they got 80 percent of the oil income and could, so to speak, afford corruption. Nearly all the best government jobs went to Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis were always the best-educated group in Iraq and that gave them opportunities to put that education to work and make a good living. The security forces were dominated by the Sunni minority because the main job of the security forces was to keep the Shia Arabs and Kurds under control and that was done using terror and just enough resources to survive.
When the Shia took power after the first free elections were held in 2005 things were supposed to change. The Shia politicians who took power proved as corrupt as the Sunni ones and even though the Shia Arabs now got most of the government jobs, and lavished more oil income on the Shia Arabs that period of widespread prosperity for the Shia did not last because the Shia politicians got greedy and allowed many of the Shia to fall into poverty after a few years. Senior Shia clerics who were also politicians warned of the damage the corruption was doing to the Shia ability to rule the country at all. The violence in Basra, which has spread to the many Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad, is all about the Shia Arabs suffering higher unemployment (over 20 percent) and poverty (over 25 percent) rates than they did a decade ago. Unemployment and poverty rates are even higher in Basra province, where most of the oil comes from. There is a sense of desperation because most of these impoverished Shia Arabs know that a religious dictatorship like Shia Iran has, is no better than their corrupt Shia Arab politicians. The Shia Arabs are also not accepting excuses, like the need to repair the massive damage that (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) did to Iraq between 2014 and 2017. The areas that suffered the most were largely Sunni Arab and other minorities and those Iraqis are also angry at how reconstruction money is blatantly stolen by corrupt officials.
In addition to being anti-corruption, the current Shia unrest is critical of Iran as well. In Iraq, many senior Shia clerics have openly encouraged the protestors and approved of their cause. One of the complaints the protestors have was the way Iran interfered in the recent (May) national elections. Because of that, the Iraqi government is in worse shape. The current parliament ended on June 30 and a newly elected parliament was supposed to take its place. That did not happen and it will be a few months before results of the disputed election are agreed on. At that point, the members of the new parliament have to form a new government.
The two largest Shia coalitions (anti-Iran Sadr and pro-Iran Amiri) agreed to form a coalition that would control over 30 percent of the seats in parliament and make it possible, with a few minor coalitions added, to form a government. The Amiri faction control pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) forces and is seeking to repeat the Iranian success in Lebanon with the creation of a Hezbollah type organization. Amiri has used violence against those who oppose, secure in the fact that the police are controlled by a pro-Iran politician (who runs the Interior Ministry). These police are suspected of instigating political violence rather than containing it. Police are never around when groups hostile to Iran are attacked and police are the primary suspects in the recent warehouse fire that destroyed half the ballot boxes used in Baghdad. The fire makes it impossible to recount these disputed votes. All this contributed the outbreak of Shia protests in early July.
The real reason for the disputed election results is popular anger at corruption. One thing that united all Iraqi voters was anger at the persistent and crippling theft by government officials. Moqtada al Sadr, who was the unexpected winner, had been openly and actively anti-corruption for years and that was why his victorious coalition contained so many non-Shia groups (including communists, who are anathema to Iran). Despite that many Iraqis (and foreign allies) believe Sadr is secretly allied with Iran because the Sadr family has long had ties with Iran and members of the Sadr clan often took refuge in Iran. But that was because the Sadrs were respected Shia clerics and Iran was where the best schools and scholars were. Yet the Sadrs, like most Iraqi Shia Arabs, are Arabs and Iraqis first and that has been proven time and time again. Moqtada al Sadr has seen up close and frequently how a Shia clerical dictatorship works in Iran and was not impressed. He largely kept quiet about this but it was no secret that Sadr did not want a religious dictatorship in Iraq, mainly because it would make the country even more difficult to rule.
Sadr also noted that Iranian Arabs (and Arabs in general) are despised by most Iranians. Meanwhile, Iraq will demonstrate, over the next few months (or more) why it is considered the most dysfunctional country in the Middle East. Iraqi politicians will argue and negotiate in a lengthy effort to form a governing coalition and then for that coalition to select a prime minister and all the subordinate ministers.
Sadr is often described as anti-American but he is generally anti-foreigner in general but is willing to work with other nations if it helps Iraq. Thus there was a recent visit by Sadr to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi leaders. The Saudis had long supported the Sunni minority rule in Iraq because it worked and helped contain Iran. With that Sunni minority government gone and not likely to return anytime soon Sadr believes the Saudis still want an Arab government in Iraq that will help keep Iran out of Arabia. Sadr and the Saudis agree on that as do the majority of Iraqis, including most Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Oil Production Surges
July production has surged and looks live it will average over 4 million BPD (barrels per day). The rate at which production is growing could mean production of nearly 5 million BPD in the next month. The 2016 OPEC limits set on Iraqi production are 4.35 million BPD. Since late 2017 oil production from the southern oil fields has averaged 3.5 million BPD. In early 2017 Iraq, as a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, had agreed to reduce its oil production by over a million BPD to help increase the world price for oil. Iraqi production hit a peak 3.51 million BPD at the end of 2016. Iraqi production increased in 2017, often to take advantage of the production cuts the Saudis had agreed to and were making. But the October offensive against the Kurds in Kirkuk shut down most of the oil production up there.
The surprise Iraqi government attacks on Kirkuk in mid-October 2017 led to a sharp reduction in oil exported from the north by the Kurds. The Kurds were exporting 500,000 BPD before October and now that is running at about 200,000 BPD. Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and 2017 exploration efforts have that increased by 10 billion barrels. That makes 153 billion barrels, which more than a third larger than it was after the resumption of oil exploration a decade ago. Iran has reserves of 158 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia 266 billion and Venezuela 300 billion. These four nations have the largest reserves which are about 60 percent of the world total. What is keeping the world oil price low is fracking. The new American technology is making much more oil and gas available and it is expected that the U.S. and Canada will soon have “proven reserves” equaling a third of the current world total. The fall in oil prices since 2013 (from over $100 a barrel to as low as $30) cut foreign currency reserves to about $48 billion by the end of 2017, compared to $53 billion in mid-2016. By early 2018 the price of oil had climbed to $60 a barrel mainly because OPEC members were not cheating on their quotas and several members were producing less than their quota because of internal security problems. The ISIL crisis forced Iraq to be more prudent with its finances, and government operations in general. The Americans are no longer being blamed for all that goes wrong. Taking responsibility does indeed make it easier to deal with problems. But many Iraqi leaders and politicians still prefer to blame all the problems on America, Israel and so on.
ISIL Goes Full Guerilla
ISIL began switching to guerrilla tactics even before they lost control of Mosul and other Iraqi towns by the end of 2017. In the last few months, ISIL has increased its guerilla-type attacks and it is having an impact, especially in the area north of Baghdad (Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces). This can be seen by the growing number of attacks, especial along the main roads north from Baghdad to Kirkuk and the border with the Kurdish controlled north. Attacks involving kidnapping and murder (mainly to terrorize the population into not interfering with or reporting on ISIL activity) are more frequent. In March there were seven of these attacks. That increased to 30 during May and 83 in June. This increase shows how effectively ISIL has established base areas to operate from. Most of the bases are in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala province through northern Salahuddin province and into southern Kirkuk province. About 500 ISIL members are believed to be operating in the Hemrins and another 500 in desert areas near the Syrian border from west of Mosul south to include Anbar province. ISIL is also trying to reestablish itself in Mosul and in the last few days, police arrested 18 members, including a known leader, in a town west of Mosul.
July 24, 2018: The government sent $18 million from the “emergency fund” to Basra province to hasten the construction of 52 schools as well as emergency repairs on drinking water facilities. Kuwait sent seventeen mobile power generators and 18,000 tons of fuel to power the generators as well as existing power plants in Basra. Saudi Arabia is sending help as well.
The U.S. revealed that several air strikes on ISIL targets in April and June had killed six ISIL members who were planning and supporting attacks in Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Sweden.
July 21, 2018: In the autonomous Kurdish north (Sulaymaniyah Province) across the border in Iran (Kermanshah Province) PJAK Iranian Kurdish separatists attacked a border patrol base killing eleven Iranian border guards and destroying much of the facility. The PJAK attackers then fled back to their base in Iraq and apparently got across the border before Iranian troops pursuing them could catch up. Kermanshah Province is also largely Kurdish and frequent scene for clashes like this. Iran complained to the Kurdish government in northern Iraq but was told that the limited Kurdish security forces are concentrating from the continuing threat posed by ISIL and other Islamic terror groups.
July 19, 2018: Senior Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr openly urged the government to quickly address the demands of the demonstrators in Basra and Baghdad. The Sadr coalition was the unexpected winner of the national elections in May. For years Sadr has been openly and actively calling for more vigorous and effective anti-corruption measures. This has had little impact, which is why the anti-government protests in Basra continue.
Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province went public with support for the Shia demonstrators in Basra and Baghdad. Sunni and Shia both get treated badly by corrupt politicians.
July 18, 2018: In the northwest (Nineveh province) the military was alerted by an informant that a large (about 60 vehicles) ISIL convoy had crossed the border from Syria near Baaj (160 kilometers southwest of Mosul, near the Syrian border). In mid-2017 Shia militias declared the border town of Baaj clear of ISIL forces and now occupied by government forces to keep it that way. Iraqi ground and air forces went searching for the convoy but it had apparently already dispersed after crossing the border and reinforced various ISIL cells operating in Nineveh province.
July 17, 2018: In the northeast (Erbil province) artillery across the border in Iran fired on two DPIK (Iranian Kurdish separatists) bases just across the border in Iraq. Two DPIK separatists were killed. The firing continued overnight and into the next day causing hundreds of Iraqi Kurdish civilians to flee their homes.
July 14, 2018: In the northwest (Nineveh province) the police chief in the city of Mosul banned the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This gives Islamic conservatives and most residents of Mosul one less thing to complain about. Corrupt politicians, criminals of all sorts and some foreigners account for most of the alcohol consumed in the city and while alcohol has long been legal in Iraq its use has come to be associated with unpopular people. Similar bans were recently imposed in several Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) towns. The alcohol ban in Mosul is part of an effort to prevent the unhappy population from getting violent (as in Basra). Reconstruction in Mosul has been slow and even more than Basra public services, especially medical, are in short supply. Corruption is seen as the main cause of all this. Billions have been pledged to rebuild Mosul and too many Iraqi politicians see that as an opportunity to steal, rather than make the reconstruction projects get done ahead of schedule and under budget. About a third of the pre-2014 population are homeless and many of the homes that are livable are either damaged or have little or no access to water, sewage and electrical services.
July 13, 2018: The anti-government riots have not only spread (from Basra) to Baghdad but are spreading inside Baghdad. To deal with that the government has ordered Internet access in most of the capital blocked. This Internet ban was soon applied to the rest of the country and has caused even more popular anger and is harming the economy at the rate of over half a billion dollars a month. Demonstrators have also blocked the roads to Kuwait.
July 12, 2018: The United States is building a third base in Anbar Province, near the Syrian border, to support counter-terror operations in western Anbar as well as across the border in the Euphrates River Valley of Syria. The other two American Anbar bases are at the Al Asad airbase and near the city of Ramadi.
July 8, 2018: In the south (Basra) protests broke out over the unreliable electrical supply, poor government services and high unemployment. A protest near an oil field led to police opening fire on the unruly crowd, killing one and wounding three. The demonstrators were not violent and word (and cell phone images) of what happened quickly spread so that the next day even larger crowds of protesters appeared all over Basra. Pro-Iran political parties and militias were also attacked. The demonstrations did not stop and within a week had spread to Baghdad. Demonstrators also blocked the border crossings to Kuwait and Iran.
July 7, 2018: In the northwest, Iraqi and American artillery near the Syrian border (west of Mosul) fired into Syria and hit three buildings in the town of Sousa (Deir Zor province). These buildings were used by ISIL as safe houses and the artillery fire killed the ISIL head of security along with up to twenty other Islamic terrorists, some of them foreigners (not from Iraq or Syria). There is apparently a combined Iraqi/U.S. 155mm artillery unit operating on the Syrian border and regularly firing on targets inside Syria. It is not known if the Iraqis are also using the GPS guided 155mm shells American artillery has used regularly in Iraq and Syria. GPS guided shells would make sense if trying to hit a few buildings and destroy them before the people in them can flee to take shelter.
July 6, 2018: Iran shut down electricity deliveries to the southern Iraqi provinces of Ziqar (west of Basra) and Meysan (just north of Basra), exacerbating the anger of people in Basra and other southern areas. While the timing was embarrassing the power was cut off because the Iraqi officials in charge of importing electricity refused to pay for it. The money for the electricity was probably stolen before it could reach Iran.
July 2, 2018: In June 76 civilians and policemen died due to Islamic terrorist violence. A quarter of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Areas north of Baghdad (Diyala and Kirkuk) accounted for 34 percent of the dead. In May 95 died which was an increase from the 68 April deaths. March, when 104 died had been the deadliest month so far in 2018. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February. The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias).
June 26, 2018: In Iran large demonstrations in the capital (Tehran) continued into their second day, triggered by a collapse in the value of the Iranian currency. People are also protesting the poor state of the economy and most Iranians. Israeli officials issued Farsi (Iranian) language messages on social media pointing out the Iranian government had agreed to spend at least $2.5 billion in 2018 supporting foreign terrorists like the Shia rebels in Yemen, the Assads in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Shiite militias in Iraq. This is in addition to over $14 billion Iran admits it has already spent on supporting the Assads in Syria since 2012. The Iranian protestors need little encouragements as they have been shouting “Down With The Palestinians” and criticism of the Syrian War as well. This unrest, which has been occurring more frequently since late 2017, was noted by Shia Arabs in Iraq.