Baghdad: In the Iraqi summer, when the temperature rises above 50 degrees Celcius, electricity becomes even more of a political issue than usual. This past week, at the top of Iraqis’ agenda, it has even eclipsed war with Daesh.
Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi declared a four-day weekend to keep people out of the sun, but he did not stop there. He also called in the electricity minister for emergency consultations, and ordered an end to one of the most coveted perks of government officials: round-the-clock power for their air conditioners.
Now, the scheduled daily power cuts that other Iraqis have long endured are to be imposed on government offices and officials’ homes.
That may not be enough for Iraqis, who have not had reliable electricity since the US invasion in 2003 in Baghdad — and in many provinces, far longer. One of the country’s largest recent grass-roots protests shut down traffic in Baghdad on Friday night, and more protests took place on Saturday in southern Iraq.
Several thousand people — workers, artists and intellectuals — demonstrated on Friday evening in Tahrir Square in the centre of Baghdad, chanting and carrying signs about the lack of electricity and blaming corruption for it. They blocked traffic at a major roundabout, waiting until sundown to avoid the heat and to have more impact, since the streets are quieter during the day as people stay out of the sun.
Some men stripped to their shorts and lay down in the street to sleep, a strong statement in a modest society where it is rare to see men bare-chested in public.
The protest was unusual in that it did not appear to have been called for by any major political party. People carried Iraqi flags and denounced officials. Security forces with riot shields blocked them from moving across a bridge toward the restricted Green Zone where many officials live.
Courteous police officers handed out water, a shift from earlier years when they responded harshly to electricity protests. One police officer there even denounced his commanders, saying they had sent him and other officers to infiltrate the protest as provocateurs. Instead, he had joined it in earnest.
Shouting at a cellphone camera with the protest visible behind him, he said he was told to “ruin the protest”. Cursing his boss by name and flashing a police identity card, he added, “We will continue calling for our demands even if you fire me.”
Within hours, Al Abadi praised the protesters for standing up for their rights, and called in the electricity minister. The minister told parliament last week that the electricity grid would crank up to 11,000 megawatts, barely half of the summer’s peak demand of 22,000 megawatts. Normal capacity is closer to 8,500 megawatts.
Earlier on Friday, in the weekly sermon in the shrine city of Karbala that typically addresses the political issues of the day, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Hussaini Al Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, had exhorted the government to address “the sufferings of citizens” over electricity.
“Unfortunately, every government is blaming the government that came before it,” Abdul Mahdi Al Karbalai, the representative, declared to a sweltering audience packing one of the city’s great shrines.
He came around only later to the subject of the war on Daesh terrorists, who control large parts of the country.
“The people are still patient toward the sufferings, and also they are sacrificing themselves to fight Daesh terrorism to defend Iraq,” he said. “But there are limits to patience.”
That conflict made the even hotter than usual temperatures in recent days an even bigger problem. More than 3 million people have been displaced by the fighting, and many lack basic shelter to protect them from the heat.