BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Failure to tackle the dire state of public services in Iraq seven years after the U.S.-led invasion is coming back to haunt Iraq’s leaders, fuelling public anger in a new challenge to the nascent democracy.
Protests over crippling power cuts spread to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala on Tuesday, after clashes between police and demonstrators in Basra and Nassiriya killed two people and forced the resignation of Electricity Minister Karim Waheed.
While a sign of bitter frustration, the protests are also a symptom of the political impasse since an inconclusive March election, and are being used by political rivals to gain the upper hand in negotiations to form a government.
The sectarian war has eased, and while a stubborn insurgency continues to show its teeth in deadly attacks, Iraqis can finally contemplate stability and future prosperity on the back of deals to develop Iraq’s vast but underexploited oilfields.
“If you look at the situation now, security has improved. So now people of course are looking at the next thing, services, jobs and being able to have education, health and so forth,” Hussein al-Uzri, chairman of the Trade Bank of Iraq, which was badly damaged by suicide bombers on Sunday, told Reuters.
But daily life remains a hard slog, made harder by severe water and electricity shortages that drive up running costs for businesses and compound the effects of the sweltering Iraqi summer when temperatures soar above 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit).
And while Iraqis sweat, their political leaders haggle in villas protected by blastwalls over how to form a new government 3 1/2 months after Iraqis braved insurgent threats and bombs to vote in a March 7 election that produced no clear winner.
“The resignation of the minister means nothing,” said Baghdad resident Mohammed Ihsan, who sells electricity to his neighbours from a giant diesel generator.
“What did the former minister do to make us optimistic about the new ones? The next minister will be no different. They all just come to fill their pockets before they leave.”
Iraq’s electricity woes go back 20 years to the first Gulf War when power stations were bombed by U.S. warplanes, and were aggravated by years of international sanctions that prevented investment in new infrastructure.
More damage during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, insurgent attacks since and a lack of the huge amounts of money needed to produce enough power to meet soaring demand mean most Iraqis get by on only a few hours of public electricity per day.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who campaigned for the March election on a platform of improved security, urged patience on Tuesday, and condemned the “politicisation” of the protests.
Maliki said electricity output could not be increased at will and Iraqis had to wait for multibillion-dollar deals with General Electric and Siemens to bear fruit before the struggling national grid’s capacity can be doubled.
“This will take two years to be completed and to solve the problem,” he told reporters. “What’s happening now are only temporary solutions.”
Yet endemic corruption has further eroded public faith in the promises of politicians to improve daily lives and infrastructure that is crumbling after years of neglect.
The demonstrations have been supported by Shi’ite political rivals of Maliki who oppose his bid for a second term and have seized on the electricity cuts as a way to embarrass the prime minister and bolster their own candidates to replace him.
“The Iraqi people in the streets have started to feel that there is a feverish power struggle going on over the distribution of posts, without taking into account the interests of citizens,” said Baghdad University analyst Hameed Fadhel.
The political bloc of fiery anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has 39 seats in the new 325-seat parliament and is negotiating with Maliki’s State of Law to form a government, said the resignation of the electricity minister was not enough.
“Other officials should also resign, such as the prime minister, the oil minister, their advisers and specialists in the energy management sector,” said Sadrist Amir al-Kinani.
Civil upheaval provides a new challenge to a state still battling to contain a Sunni Islamist-led insurgency while U.S. forces prepare to end combat operations in August and withdraw completely in 2011.
“We’ve been hoping for seven years that the next year would be better than the last, but none of our hopes were met,” said 64-year-old former footballer Azad Neshan, who has only been able to keep a close eye on the World Cup soccer tournament on television because of his own small generator.
“It lets us forget our worries for at least two hours,” he said of the soccer. “But when the match finishes, we return to our worries.”
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Rania El Gamal and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Michael Christie and Mark Trevelyan)