From Basra to Baghdad

Young Iraqis rise up for a life worth living

Major rallies against the nation's political elite have been raging in Iraq for months, so far resulting in 15 deaths and 120 injuries. Birgit Svensson reports from Basra, where the protests first flared up and quickly spread through the entire southern half of the country to Baghdad

He was one of the first to take the streets of Basra: Hussam is 23 years old, wears ripped jeans like so many young people in the West, smokes and looks worn out. Since July, he's been out and about pretty much every day to protest. Because here in this southern Iraqi metropolis the mercury is still rising to just shy of 50 degree Celsius, the rallies mostly take place after sundown.

Then, thousands of young people gather at various points across the city and yell their demands: "We want clean water! We want jobs and enough electricity! Down with the corrupt regime! Iran barra, barra (out, out)!"

The protests have now spread across the entire southern half of the country. The wave has also reached Baghdad. But Basra remains at the heart of the movement, because things are especially bad here.

In Iraq, the word Basra is on everyone's lips right now. Partly out of admiration for what's going on here, but also out of horror and fear. It's primarily young men like Hussam and a smaller number of women, estimated to be between 100 and 200, who are taking to the streets and demonstrating against the contaminated water that has already put thousands of people in hospital. Their protests are directed at inadequate power supplies, against corruption and the lack of prospects facing young people in Iraq. After all, the majority of Iraq's population of 33 million is under 25 years old. But they have little future in a nation that has, like no other, been stricken by wars, embargos and terror.

The older generation holds the reins of power and is feeding off the nationʹs honey pots. Brought out of exile by the Americans following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, they were bestowed with political positions and 15 years later, they're still there. Or they came out of exile in Iran – Shias persecuted by Saddam – and put their roots down in the South, where Shias form the majority population.

Demonstrators following the storming of government offices in Basra on 7 September 2018 (photo: AP/picture-alliance)
Sunni and Shia, united in their frustration: "the protests appear to be uniting young Sunnis and Shias. While the 2013 rallies drove disaffected Sunnis onto the street against the Shia government in Baghdad to the benefit of IS, today, Shias are demonstrating against their Shia political elite. So, there can no longer be any talk of a religious conflict," writes Svensson

Simultaneously rich and poor

Poor rich Basra. After the IS terror militia's blitzkrieg of 2014, when "Islamic State" (Daesh) captured parts of northern Iraq and Mosul became the capital of the transnational caliphate on the Iraqi side, the population of Basra didn't stop growing. With almost three million residents, Basra is now the second-largest city in Iraq.

Largely spared from terror and violence, the city was regarded as a safe haven for many domestic refugees. Basra's population has grown by almost one million in recent years. But the infrastructure could not keep pace. On the contrary: power supplies couldn't cope with the increase and energy had to be imported from Iran. Tehran eventually cut these supply lines in June, because the bills weren't being paid.

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