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Sectarianism and corrupt rule, so who does Iraq really serve?

One of the less-publicised victims of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the country's electrical grid. This infrastructure has been damaged further by the continued unrest in the country; insurgents have targeted power networks repeatedly. This becomes particularly pressing in the summer months, as temperatures soar and the pressure on electricity supply increases. Blackouts are common during the summer months. Many parts of the country have electricity for just a few hours a day.

Iraq is currently in the midst of a heat wave, with temperatures topping 50C. The government has admitted that at peak times it will only be able to provide half the power that the country needs. It declared a four-day public holiday to keep people out of the sun, and issued an appeal for people to save power. It was announced that the power would be cut to government residences and state buildings, but this has not been enough to stem the tide of popular anger.

The power shortages have prompted hundreds of protestors to take to the streets in Baghdad, Basra and other cities, angry at the failure to repair this infrastructure and tackle the energy crisis. The power cuts have become a symbol of outrage about other poor services and government corruption. In Basra, protestors complained about the lack of clean water, pelting officials with plastic water bottles. Unusually, the protests did not appear to have been organised by any major political party; it seems as if they are the result of genuine public despair. Many of those taking to the streets were middle class, educated people, even civil servants, not afraid to criticise the government.

Anger about the power outages and other poor services has temporarily displaced the fight against ISIS as the top political issue in the country. Of course, the two issues are not unconnected; there are currently three million people displaced by the fighting. Many lack basic shelter to protect them from the heat.

Like everything else in Iraq, the distribution of power has long had sectarian overtones. Saddam Hussein kept the capital, Baghdad, supplied with fairly constant electricity, with few outages. The Sunni heartlands in the north and west also had a disproportionately good power supply, while the southern provinces, peopled by the Shia majority, usually got only a few hours per day. After the 2003 invasion, the American administration evened out the supply across Iraq. This was fairer, but was a shock to people in Baghdad and the Sunni provinces. The latter already felt disadvantaged after 2003, as the Shia were empowered and took over the reins of government. The issue of electricity is just another on a list of grievances held by the Sunni community in Iraq, along with concerns about political exclusion and scapegoating by the Shia-led government.

The American occupying administration failed to get electricity back up to the levels seen under Hussein, and the Iraqi government that took over in 2004 – and all successive governments – have also failed to do so. Infrastructure damage and insurgent attacks are a real cause of the problems, but incompetence and corruption have certainly played a part as well. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent, yet basic necessities such as clean drinking water and electricity remain in short supply. Analysts point out that a section of the political class has engaged in wholesale theft of public funds. The protestors in Baghdad – who chanted "Thieves! Thieves! Thieves!" outside official buildings – are not far off in their analysis.

Iraq consistently ranks as one of the worst countries in the world for corruption. A Transparency International report on the country is damning: "Massive embezzlement, procurement scams, money laundering, oil smuggling and widespread bureaucratic bribery have led the country to the bottom of international corruption rankings, fuelled political violence and hampered effective state building and service delivery. Although the country's anti-corruption initiatives and framework have expanded since 2005, they still fail to provide a strong and comprehensive integrity system. Political interference in anti-corruption bodies and politicisation of corruption issues, weak civil society, insecurity, lack of resources and incomplete legal provisions severely limit the government's capacity to efficiently curb soaring corruption."

It is not surprising that Iraq faces so many problems. It bears the scars of years of brutal and divisive dictatorship. Society was damaged further by harsh sanctions in the 1990s. The 2003 invasion totally dismantled the entire state apparatus. A country already splintered and fragile was not equipped to build the state back up from scratch. This is evident in the deep sectarian divisions, in the widespread corruption, and in the importance of patronage to politics and business. As protestors continue to brave soaring temperatures to make their voices heard, one must wonder who the new Iraq really serves.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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