Power struggle in Thi Qar met with reform protests

The New Region

Jul. 10, 2024 • 15 min read
Image of Power struggle in Thi Qar met with reform protests

Protests erupt in Thi Qar over unemployment, corruption, and poor services.

On March 18, 2024, Murtadha al-Ibrahimi, the newly elected governor of Thi Qar, gave his first press conference pledging to uphold the security, stability, and social cohesion of the province. He vowed to stay neutral among the victorious political factions and steer clear of partisanship and regional biases.

These commitments, however, soon unraveled. Within days, the province was engulfed in political disputes, with factions openly clashing. The struggle for control over key positions, viewed as lucrative sources of funding, intensified, coinciding with a surge in violence, security breakdowns, and assassinations of prominent figures. The province's persistent service failures and economic woes further exacerbated the situation.

By June 2 of this year, the unrest had boiled over into the streets of Nasiriyah, Thi Qar's capital, where demonstrators rallied demanding employment. The protests quickly escalated into violence, with more than 20 people injured. The unrest continued with renewed demonstrations on June 8 and 10, with unemployed youth blocking roads and attempting to storm government buildings.

The protests centered around the desperate job market, with tens of thousands of university graduates unemployed and the ruling parties seemingly indifferent to finding solutions despite mounting public outrage over deteriorating services amongst other grievances.

The situation in Thi Qar, in southern Iraq, has been further exacerbated by rampant drug trafficking and increased usage, particularly among young people. The province also leads the nation in recorded suicide cases, highlighting the severity of its social issues.

Political strife and socio-economic crises have cast a long shadow over the already fragile security situation in Nasiriyah. As political disputes intensify, the suffering of the people deepens, and the crises worsen. Rather than addressing and confronting the pressing issues, the issues are often exploited to further polarization and tension, according to officials, researchers, and activists familiar with the region.

A civil activist, opting to stay anonymous due to fears of harassment, ties the current crises and the internal power struggles within the Coordination Framework to the scramble for positions and benefits following the establishment of the local government in Thi Qar in early 2024. The activist points to "a lack of accountability amid ongoing failures in delivering essential services."

They predict a resurgence and escalation of demonstrations, saying, "Corruption continues unabated, projects collapse or stall, and improvements in the health and education sectors remain elusive. The persistent electricity issues and worsening unemployment crisis will inevitably fuel more public unrest."

Repercussions of governance failures

The Coordination Framework, an Iraqi political coalition formed in October 2021, includes a mix of pro-Iranian forces and Popular Mobilization factions. Its key members are the State of Law Coalition led by Nouri al-Maliki, the Fath Alliance led by Hadi al-Amiri, the Ata Movement, the Huqooq Movement, the Virtue Party, and the State Forces Alliance headed by Ammar al-Hakim and Haider al-Abadi.

These Islamic-oriented factions control several local governments, including Thi Qar, which has a population of over two million. With a history of governance failures, they dominate the councils of southern provinces and face widespread corruption accusations. Numerous projects have collapsed or stalled, and tens of billion Iraqi Dinars of funds have been squandered under their watch.

On February 5, 2024, the Thi Qar Provincial Council elected Abdul Baqi al-Omari from the Sanad Bloc as council president and Murtadha al-Ibrahimi from the Hikma Bloc as governor. The council also appointed Razzaq Kshish al-Ghazi from the State of Law Coalition as the first deputy governor and Majid al-Atabi from the Sadiqoun Bloc as the second deputy governor. Murtadha al-Saidi from the Virtue Party was elected deputy council president.

The Coordination Framework subsequently assumed control of Thi Qar's local government, distributing positions based on a "quota and spoils division" system. However, most residents of Thi Qar are disillusioned with these factions' performance. Their governance has negatively impacted service delivery, development plans, and security conditions, potentially sparking new crises that could lead to further protests and violence.

On March 3, 2024, Aziz Faisal, the provincial intelligence director, was fatally shot in the stomach while trying to mediate an armed tribal conflict between the al-Omari and al-Rumayd tribes in the al-Islah district, east of Nasiriyah.

Later that month, on March 31, 2024, the Ministry of Interior reported that unidentified gunmen on motorcycles assassinated poet Falah al-Badri in the old Nasiriyah market and fled the scene.

An hour after al-Badri's murder, unknown assailants threw a sound grenade at the house of Hazem Muhan, the Director of Properties for the Nasiriyah Municipality. The explosion damaged the facade of the house, but no injuries were reported.

That same night, Muqdad al-Majid, a lecturer at the College of Media at Thi Qar University, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. A gunman on a motorcycle fired at him with a Kalashnikov near the Fast Bridge in downtown Nasiriyah.

The security incidents continued unabated. On April 9, 2024, unidentified gunmen killed a young man named Muatamin in the al-Washaah area of the Souq al-Shuyukh district, south of Nasiriyah. Mutamin was an activist involved in the October 2019 protests against central and local government policies.

These successive attacks, labeled as criminal incidents by local police, underscored the severe security weaknesses and the pervasive issue of "uncontrolled weapons" in the southern provinces, including Thi Qar, where nearly every household is armed.

The incidents highlighted the futility of the Ministry of Interior's efforts to collect unlicensed weapons, given that political factions vying for power permit individuals to arm themselves to defend their interests, and shield their militants from prosecution.

Local sources suggest that some of these violent acts may be connected to the rampant drug trade and its associated gangs in Thi Qar. Security forces have struggled to combat the issue, amid accusations that organized crime networks benefit from the protection of armed groups, facilitating their operations and drug trafficking.

Political turmoil and public protests

The Coordination Framework parties took 13 of the 18 seats on the Thi Qar Provincial Council. The Nabni Alliance led the results with five seats, followed by the State of Law Coalition with four seats. The State Forces Alliance and the Youth Machine List each secured two seats.

The remaining five seats were allocated to five different entities: the Mission Alliance, the Values Civil Alliance, the Rejoice Iraq List, the Iraqi Foundation Coalition, and the December Dawn List.

Analyst Hussein al-Amil links the ongoing political conflict in Thi Qar to the boycott of local elections by some factions. This boycott, he argues, has led to the new government's lack of support from a broader popular base in the province, which does not endorse the current administration.

Al-Amil warns that the government, which he describes as being formed on a quota system, "may face dissolution at any moment as it will constantly be under the pressure of opposition."

Al-Amil criticizes the new local government for not appointing experienced individuals to key positions, including department heads and the governor's advisors. He warns that the protests, which began in early June 2024, will continue to escalate until significant political and economic reforms are implemented.

He outlined the protesters' demands: "Fighting corruption, ending the quota system, abolishing provincial councils, providing job opportunities for the unemployed, and prioritizing the agricultural sector and national industry."

The Thi Qar demonstrations on June 2, 2024, began with dozens of young protesters, many of whom had unconfirmed employment contracts. They attempted to shut down the Thi Qar Oil Company and other facilities, leading to violence and injuries among both protesters and security forces.

The protests in Nasiriyah resumed on June 8, 10, and 12. Unemployed youths blocked roads with burning tires and attempted to storm the provincial council building, resulting in damage to government vehicles and injuries. 

Observers interviewed for this report predict that protests will persist due to pervasive corruption in government institutions, the entrenched quota system, stalled public projects, deteriorating services, and widespread unemployment and poverty, which exceeds 30 percent according to the Ministry of Planning. Additionally, Thi Qar faces serious issues such as rising suicide rates and drug proliferation.

These predictions are based on the pattern of protests that erupted in al-Habboubi Square in Nasiriyah, reminiscent of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Baghdad that began in October 2019 and lasted for months. During these protests, government buildings, including the former Thi Qar Provincial Council, were set ablaze.

The newly elected provincial council, which came into office in late 2023, held its initial sessions at the Thi Qar Police Headquarters and the Thi Qar Water Directorate hall. Currently, council members are carrying out their duties from the Nasiriyah District Council building.

Origins of the conflict

On March 9, 2024, Shibl al-Zaidi, a prominent figure in the Nabni Alliance and head of the Imam Ali Brigades, posted a cryptic message on X about the allocation of provinces won by the alliance, without specifying whom the message targeted.

In his post, al-Zaidi stated, "The Nabni Alliance's share is four provinces: Diyala, Diwaniyah, Maysan, and Babil." He attributed this division to "the relevant party," referring to the Coordination Framework, which had secured the majority of seats in these provinces.

Criticizing the position-sharing process, al-Zaidi added, "It seems the tale of the lion, the wolf, and the fox and the division they sought has become a political norm for some."

Ihsan al-Shammari, Director of the Iraqi Political Thinking Center, argues that the Coordination Framework parties, which dominate Baghdad, dictate the distribution of political positions in the southern and central provinces. He points out that Thi Qar is currently mired in political instability and conflicts of interest among various parties, which could lead to renewed tensions, especially after the major political blocs have fragmented.

Al-Shammari notes that political deals are the norm in these regions, leaving emerging forces disillusioned. He emphasizes that key positions, such as the governorship, should be based on broader political agreements and consensus, rather than being decided solely by the victorious parties, particularly in light of the widespread public boycotts during the elections.

Salah al-Zaini, leader of the Parliamentary Foundation Alliance Bloc, remarks that the use of political funds, government positions, and state resources was rampant in the provincial council elections. This, he says, has undermined the efforts of new political movements to challenge the entrenched traditional parties, which have once again asserted their dominance.

Al-Zaini has exposed "disputes and breaches of agreements by the leaders of the Coordination Framework" regarding the distribution of positions based on each party's electoral results and influence in the provinces.

He comments, "As a result, there is a lack of adherence to the overall political vision of the Coordination Framework parties in certain provinces, which could adversely affect the performance of local governments."

Despite the election results, where Coordination Framework leaders initially stressed the importance of forming service-oriented governments, the reality has been a power struggle over positions. This infighting has overshadowed any genuine or practical efforts to address and resolve Thi Qar's ongoing crises.

The provincial council elections saw a significant decline in participation rates. The Electoral Commission reported a 41 percent turnout based on voters who updated their electoral cards, but the actual participation rate was closer to 28 percent of eligible voters.

A disappointing government

Hussein al-Ghurabi, Secretary-General of the National Home Party, said that the formation of the new local government in Thi Qar has led to considerable disappointment due to the revival of the quota system. "Traditional parties and factions have re-emerged, bringing back party dominance within the province along with quotas and commissions on projects."

Al-Ghurabi predicts that the protest movement in Thi Qar will persist. "It will not tolerate any violation of people's rights. Nasiriyah is suffering from a major conflict between the Sanad Bloc, Hikma, and other Coordination Framework parties, primarily over the distribution of high-ranking positions and the benefits that come with them." He added, "These parties treat these positions as economic opportunities to generate revenue."

He voiced concerns that this conflict could negatively impact "the provision of services, security and political stability, and the progress of service projects that are already facing chronic delays.

"We have information suggesting that several Provincial Council members received substantial sums of money to support an alliance aiming to topple the newly formed government. This movement is partly led by the Dawa Party and former Thi Qar governor Mohammed al-Ghazi. It's quite possible that the government may face a change in the near future."

He also references the assassinations in Nasiriyah during the initial weeks of the local government's tenure: "The victims were individuals involved in the protest movement, and the local government has not provided evidence that these incidents were criminal acts. This indicates a real security threat in the province and a resurgence of conflicts involving uncontrolled weapons."

Agreement to upend the status quo

A well-placed source within the Hikma Movement in Thi Qar province shared with The New Region details about a pivotal meeting on April 20, 2024. This gathering included former Thi Qar governor Mohammed al-Ghazi, Shibl al-Zaidi from the Nabni Alliance and head of the Imam Ali Brigades, and Ahmed al-Asadi, leader of the Sanad Alliance. Their aim was to collect signatures from the Thi Qar Provincial Council to challenge the current governor, with plans to push for his dismissal before the allocation of over one trillion dinars for provincial projects.

The source noted that "the conflict arises from disputes over the distribution of positions." He disclosed that "the Sanad Alliance has splintered, with figures like Abu Alaa al-Walai of the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades and Haider al-Grawi, Secretary-General of the Ansar Allah al-Awfia militia, breaking away to form a new bloc called 'Muntasiroon'."

He continued, "Currently, the Sanad Alliance is led by Shibl al-Zaidi and Ahmed al-Asadi, with former governor Mohammed al-Ghazi joining forces with them. They have even renewed their pact to run on two separate lists in the forthcoming parliamentary elections and then unite as an alliance within parliament."

The source revealed that "Deputy Governor of Thi Qar, Razzaq Kshish, attempted to align himself with Mohammed al-Ghazi, Ahmed al-Asadi, and Shibl al-Zaidi in forming a new political alliance. However, he was firmly instructed by his political leaders in Baghdad to abandon this plan."

He added, "The Coordination Framework forces have agreed to temporarily postpone the allocation of certain positions and administrative units to resolve the internal disputes and prevent fragmentation within the coalition."

Another political source in Thi Qar, requesting anonymity for security reasons, disclosed that resistance factions such as Kata'ib Hezbollah, Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, al-Nujaba, and Ansar Allah al-Awfia, which participated in the recent local elections through their political wings, feel marginalized in the administrative division of the Thi Qar government. As a result, they are applying pressure to secure some of the contested positions.

The source suggested that one tactic for exerting political pressure involves "establishing an opposition front. This would bring together most of the resistance factions and align them with other political forces within the Provincial Council, aiming for a strong position in the upcoming parliamentary elections."

According to the source, this new opposition front will be led by the political wings of resistance factions in Thi Qar, including Kata'ib Hezbollah, Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades, and Ansar Allah al-Awfia. The goal is to eventually incorporate larger factions and form a unified and influential opposition.

Additionally, the source accused Thi Qar’s current governor, Murtadha al-Ibrahimi, of breaching the Coordination Framework's political agreement on position distribution. The source described al-Ibrahimi as "administratively ineffective."

During a press conference on May 29, 2024, the Chairman of the Thi Qar Provincial Council unveiled the formation of the Thi Qar Sons Alliance. This new coalition, comprising ten members from the Sanad Bloc, State Forces Alliance, State of Law Coalition, Values Civil Alliance, Rejoice Iraq Alliance, and the National Approach Bloc, aims to form an opposition bloc within the council to scrutinize government performance.

A source within the Provincial Council noted that "the formation of this alliance has ignited significant political disputes among the Coordination Framework forces in Thi Qar, particularly as it seeks to present an alternative and plans to replace the current governor soon."

Despite being nominally allied, the Coordination Framework forces are undermining each other on the ground. Aqeel al-Fatlawi, a member of the State of Law Coalition, has accused other political forces within the framework of disregarding voters' rights and "overstepping the electoral mandate in the province."

Al-Fatlawi said, "The distribution of positions within the framework was not based on the winners' points or the election results of each province."

Alaa al-Rikabi, head of the Imtidad Bloc in the House of Representatives, argues that the core issue is the division of positions through political quotas, both in Baghdad and in other provinces. He has pledged to oppose the local government of Thi Qar "if it strays from its mandate to provide services and fails to address the province's pressing issues."

Nasiriyah: A beacon of protests

Haider Abbas, an unemployed university graduate, asserts that the divisions among the Coordination Framework forces, which claim to be allies with a unified vision for developing Thi Qar and improving its service and economic conditions, expose their unsuitability for leadership. "This clearly shows their lack of qualifications for leadership and signals a repetition of the failures and corruption that have plagued the province for 20 years, making protests against them inevitable," he says.

In October 2019, Thi Qar province saw widespread protests in most of its towns and its capital, Nasiriyah, paralleling the demonstrations in Baghdad's Tahrir Square and other provinces. The protesters demanded government reforms due to "poor services, rampant corruption, and the absence of national sovereignty under the rule of Iran-aligned parties and militias."

Al-Habboubi Square in Nasiriyah became a focal point for these protests, akin to Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Demonstrators managed to burn down all party and faction headquarters in retaliation for the killings of protesters, which were attributed to these political groups.

In Nasiriyah, there was a widespread belief that these parties and factions would not regain their dominance in the province. However, the provincial council elections brought them back to power, allowing them to reassert their control despite failing to deliver any meaningful service or economic improvements. This situation has kept the spirit of protest alive and strong, with the potential for renewed demonstrations at any moment. The likelihood of protests increases during the summer months when the province faces severe crises in electricity and water supply.

Violations of the law

Legal expert Ali al-Tamimi has highlighted several legal oversights in the formation of local governments due to the struggle for positions. He points out that the provincial councils failed to meet key legal requirements, starting with the delay in convening after the ratification of the election results on January 20, 2024.

Al-Tamimi explains that this delay violates Article 7 of the Provincial Councils Law No. 21 of 2008, which mandates that the winning forces hold the first session of the Provincial Council within 15 days from the ratification of the election results, announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission on December 28, 2023.

Furthermore, al-Tamimi notes a second breach by the Thi Qar Council, which failed to verify the eligibility of the candidate for the governor position. According to Article 25, Paragraph 1 of the Provincial Councils Law, the candidate must meet the conditions required for a Provincial Council member and possess a university degree or its equivalent.

The selection process for key positions, such as the governor, requires ratification by the Ministries of Education and Higher Education, with the Integrity Commission verifying the candidate’s background. This protocol was not followed by the Thi Qar Council in selecting Murtadha al-Ibrahimi. According to the regulations, the nomination for governor should be opened after the first session, and the governor should be chosen within 30 days. However, as al-Tamimi points out, al-Ibrahimi’s selection was made directly in the first session held at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

"The Provincial Council has returned, and with it, the issues related to the struggle for positions," says Haider Ali, a 37-year-old resident of Nasiriyah. He explains, "After the provincial councils were dissolved, we didn’t hear much about conflicts or accusations in the media and on social media. But all that has changed. Since the beginning of 2024, we’ve been hearing about new problems every day, and now there are popular protests."

Haider, a university graduate working various freelance jobs, expresses his frustration with the province's lagging sectors: "service, health, education, agriculture, and industry." He questions the whereabouts of the allocated funds for the province, stating that he and other citizens do not see any improvements on the streets or in their daily lives.

"In Thi Qar, we may need to emulate the actions of Samawah residents: organize large-scale protests and call on the Prime Minister’s Office to step in, curb corruption, and ensure projects are completed to high standards by reputable companies, free from any dubious deals.

"The Thi Qar government appears to be set up to serve party interests and distribute funds among themselves, just as they have for the past twenty years. We must act now to stop this from happening again."

* This feature was produced in collaboration with the Network of Iraqi Reporters for Investigative Journalism (NIRIJ)

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