BASRA, IRAQ — After months of violent demonstrations that saw thousands take to the streets and government buildings torched, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is describing the deadly protests in the southern city of Basra as a mere "political dispute."
The comments came after at least thirteen demonstrators were killed and dozens more wounded in clashes with security forces as the violence escalated in the past week. The unrest has thrust Iraq into a major crisis at a time when politicians still have yet to agree on a new government after an inconclusive election in May.
The protesters first took to the streets earlier this summer in response to severe water shortages, water contamination, and frequent power outages. But people’s anger here goes beyond that. Iraq’s southern province is home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves — yet unemployment is soaring and public services are a mess.
"Down with al-Abadi and all his government!" one woman told VICE News during a visit to the city in late August. She was quickly drowned out by her fellow protesters, who began shouting, "No, no to Abadi!"
Decades of war has destroyed Iraq’s economy and its infrastructure — and temperatures soaring up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit this summer haven’t helped either.
For years, dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iran reduced the freshwater levels in Iraq’s two main rivers — the Tigris and Euphrates — to critically low levels. That’s allowed salty sea water to flood in from the Southern Persian Gulf, entering Basra’s canals and streams, turning the once fertile land into desert, and decimating farms. It’s also contaminated drinking water supplies, leading to thousands of people being hospitalized.
Like many in the city, protester Ahmed Hussein is unemployed.
"Let them just take all the oil," Ahmed told VICE News. "We just want clean water. Just fix the salty water. We don’t want oil. We only need clean water to wash our hands and our faces. Iraqis need clean water!"
This segment originally aired September 4, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.