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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Basra is burning: amid growing protests, Iraqis must have access to basic services in first step to stability

Ordinary citizens are suffering while those elected to serve their country bicker among themselves

Iraqi protesters stand on concrete blast walls during a protest near the government office building in Basra. Reuters

Basra is burning. Or rather, it is drowning, in filthy, muddy brown water streaming from taps, which has hospitalised 20,000 and led to heated protests over clean water shortages and sanitation in the oil-rich city.

On Tuesday, despite promises from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi that security forces would not use excessive force or live bullets, six demonstrators were killed and more than 20 wounded.

On Wednesday, there was another fatality and 25 more injured as hundreds gathered outside regional government offices in the south of the country.

Among them was father Mohammed Kadem, recently married, who went out to protest the lack of clean water for his new baby and never returned; and 26-year-old Mekki Yasser Ashur, reportedly killed when security forces fired live bullets and tear gas at stone-throwing protesters.

On Thursday, cleric Moqtada Al Sadr called for an emergency parliamentary session to quell the violence amid growing calls for calm.

The unrest and death toll is deeply concerning in a country which started the week on a note of optimism: parliament was to convene to form a new government and finally begin to steer Iraq out of the quagmire of corruption and chaos which has haunted it for the last 15 years.

Instead, disenchantment and disarray prevailed. The first session of parliament ended in turmoil on Monday after Mr Al Abadi announced himself National Security Adviser and walked out on proceedings; the squabbling and infighting continued the next day as politicians failed to appoint a new speaker, the very first step necessary to forming a new leadership.

While those elected to serve their country bicker among themselves, ordinary citizens desperate to provide for their families and secure their right to basic supplies are suffering.

The Iraqi people deserve better. As the promises made during May’s election campaign are fading fast, those with a directive to govern must restore trust and faith in their citizens.

Access to clean drinking water and power is a basic, fundamental right. Anti-government protests have been taking place since July, when Iran cut power supplies for a month amid claims of unpaid bills and a spike in demand.

It is vital Iraq’s politicians set aside their differences to prevent the neighbouring country from exploiting weak links in its governance by effectively holding its citizens hostage.

The Shatt Al Arab waterway where the Tigris and Euphrates meet has become a dumping ground for waste and sewage.

Government promises to pump billions of dollars into services in the south must be used to open water treatment plants, 15 years overdue, as a priority.

It will take much to calm the unrest but setting aside their feuds and setting the wheels in motion to provide basic services for a beleaguered and suffering population is the necessary first step towards stability.

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