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Unrest In Southern Iraq Continues As Government Cuts Internet


Let's turn now to Iraq. The most widespread protests since 2003 are sweeping through the southern part of the country right now. Demonstrators have been gathering for a week. They are demanding jobs, also better services. And in response to this, the Iraqi government has sent army and counterterrorism troops. NPR's Jane Arraf has been monitoring these protests, and she joins us from Amman, Jordan.

Hi, Jane.


GREENE: So why are these protests happening, and what is the timing of them here?

ARRAF: Well, first of all, this morning in Basra, it's 115 degrees.

GREENE: That's hot.

ARRAF: And the temperature's rising. It is hot. And so imagine you're sitting in that degree temperature, and you turn on the tap, and all you get is salty water, and then the electricity goes out. And they've been dealing with this for 15 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq and promised them better lives, and they just haven't got it. So they've been demonstrating.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language, clapping).

ARRAF: At this particular one, which is outside government offices in Basra, they're calling for the downfall of the Iraqi government. Now, that's something you hear a lot, but these protests are so widespread, they're a little bit different. One of the demonstrators, Haider al-Halfi (ph), who describes himself just as citizen, lists the reasons that they're out there.

HAIDER AL-HALFI: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Now, he's saying that employment has increased; there are no public services. He said they want what the rest of Iraq has. And another demonstrator says they want dignity. And when you're talking about young men, what they mean by dignity a lot of times and in this case is they want jobs.

GREENE: And so unemployment has only been increasing. And God, I mean, hot weather is one time when it just raises all the sort of anxiety and tensions that you're already feeling. Can I just ask you about the location of this? You mentioned Basra. It's the second-biggest city in Iraq. The oil industry is there, and it's also really close to Iran, right? So are all those things factors?

ARRAF: They absolutely are. In fact, you can stand on the waterfront in Basra and look across the bridge, and there is Iran. And Iran has always been a factor. Iran and Iraq, of course, fought a very bitter eight-year-long war in the '80s. But after the toppling of Saddam and particularly in the last four years, when Iran backed militias to come and fight ISIS, they've had increasing influence in Iraq. So the interesting thing about these protests is that a lot of these protesters were saying they wanted Iran out. They wanted all political parties out, but a lot of them are Iranian-backed. So they were criticizing Iran, which is something you don't see a lot of, and also criticizing foreigners. But part of the protest, too, because it's geared towards the lack of electricity, is Iran had been supplying Iraq with electricity, and it has cut that off in a dispute over payments.

GREENE: Oh, I see. So Iran - one reason that maybe they're not getting the power. What has the Iraqi government's response to this been? Because there was just an election, and things have not been settled there, so this is a weak government dealing with this, right?

ARRAF: Yeah. Yeah - very tricky there. So Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whom the U.S. backs, has sent troops, soldiers, counterterrorism forces. They're trying to protect oil installations and government buildings. In fact, there have been people wounded and several reported killed during these demonstrations across the south. He's also promised money, but that's the tricky thing. Every politician has promised money to the south, and they haven't delivered. And as for the elections, they were held in May. There were widespread allegations of fraud. They're doing a ballot recount, but still no government, still no word when it will happen, no word when the protests will stop.

GREENE: Talking to NPR’s Jane Arraf. She’s in Amman, Jordan, monitoring those protests in Iraq. Jane, thanks a lot.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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