Protests Continue In Port City In Iraq Over Lack Of Drinking Water And Corruption

Sep 18, 2018
Originally published on September 19, 2018 3:38 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A lack of basic services led to protests this summer in Iraq's second-largest city. They turned violent recently, revealing further the underlying problems not only in Basra but in the entire country. Protesters burned down government buildings along with the offices of an Iranian-backed militia and the Iranian consulate. Several protesters were killed. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled to Basra and sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Through Basra's sweltering summer and now into the fall, crowds of mostly young men have come out every night demanding change. The protesters call it their revolution. In a city where temperatures often top 120 degrees, the demonstrations started with anger over power cuts and tap water so contaminated you can't wash or cook with it. And then it widened.

NASSER JABAR: The beginning of the protests, people started demanding electricity and water. There's lack of services. But now people know the truth. This government is a group of militias, scavengers, murderers. We want to change them, all of them.

ARRAF: That's Nasser Jabar, one of the protesters. He's 25, and he's one of the few people here who has a job. He works with Basra Oil Company, but he says only politicians benefit from the oil.

JABAR: The government needs oil to live. They don't care about people. They let people die.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in Arabic).

ARRAF: Basra is a port city near Iraq's huge southern oilfields, and it has the potential to be wealthy. Instead, years of corruption and neglect have turned it into Iraq's poorest big city. Saida Asfour, a widow who is also protesting, points out that thousands of young men from the south died fighting ISIS but says the region has received nothing in return. She and her four children live in a house made of scrap metal and abandoned appliances in one of Basra's sprawling slums.

SAIDA ASFOUR: (Through interpreter) We gave them our blood, and we get back bottles of water as charity. This government is useless.

ARRAF: And then she goes on to say Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was lower than her slippers, one of the worst insults you can throw at someone here.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #3: (Singing in Arabic).

ARRAF: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blames Basra's problems on previous governments, and he and the provincial governor appointed after the previous governor fled corruption charges blame each other.

It's dusk, and I'm standing in a square where there's a gathering protest. It's just across from the provincial government building that was burned recently. You can see the charred beams just barely holding it up.

Protesters set the government building on fire a few weeks ago. They even set fire to the Iranian consulate and the offices of one of the Iran-backed militias. The demonstrators, though, say it wasn't them. Ahmed Hussein, one of the protesters, says they were saboteurs.

AHMED HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) They are the ones who burned this. We want to build up Iraq and not burn it.

ARRAF: Hussein says he got only two weeks of work on the oil fields this year. He's exhausted. And like others, he's afraid of militias and of security forces. Basra's police chief was fired after security forces opened fire on protesters. The new police chief, General Rasheed Flayeh, tells NPR he has orders to protect them.

RASHEED FLAYEH: (Through interpreter) The security forces were not taking into consideration that there were infiltrators who intended to commit crimes. These criminal elements planned to provoke riots.

RAED DHIA: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Raed Dhia has come in a wheelchair to a memorial for the victims. He was wounded by a bullet in the leg two weeks ago. He says security forces were shooting at the protesters and not in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #4: (Singing in Arabic).

ARRAF: There's a candle burning on the arm of his wheelchair. Other protesters are lighting candles and singing. They say those who died are martyrs now, martyrs of the beginning of their revolution. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Basra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.