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Despite oil wealth, Iraq’s Basra plagued by broken infrastructure, poverty and violence

Basra, in southern Iraq, contains much of the country’s oil wealth -- yet residents there are struggling just to survive. The city lacks basic services like clean water and reliable electricity, and jobs are rare. But people taking to the streets to protest what they see as government failures to provide say they've been brutally punished. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    This fall, Iraqis in the southern city of Basra took to the streets to protest corrupt leaders and a lack of basic services.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled to Basra.

    And in the final story in her series "Dateline: Iraq," she reports how the resource-rich region leaves very little for its residents.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Heading out to protest against his government, this 21-year-old Iraqi knows what he doing is dangerous.

    Every Friday, he comes to this spot in Basra with whatever friends still dare to. When these demonstrations broke out in September, they were huge, an explosion of anger at years of poor governance and a lack of basic services. Peaceful protests turned to riots. Municipal buildings were overrun and set on fire.

    The security forces responded with brutality, killing 12 and injuring hundreds, over several days.

  • Man:

    My friends and I came here to protest against corruption and to demand our rights. But they are treating us like terrorists or ISIS, just because we are against the government. They shot at us with live ammunition, used tear gas. They beat and arrested us. The arrests are still going on.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    He's too afraid to share his name, and sleeps at friends' houses, fearful of those nighttime arrests.

    For now, the crowds have died down, and the police don't shoot when the protests are this small. But he is trying to keep the momentum. Their demands are simple: a reasonable quality of life and a minimum of government services.

  • Man:

    They call us terrorists and say we will kill them. But we wouldn't do this. We didn't come here to kill them. We came here to ask for water we can drink, decent health care, and an education for our children.

    We want Basra to be rebuilt. We want the whole of Iraq to be rebuilt, and we want our share from the oil. These are not demands. These are rights written in the constitution.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Iraq's southern city of Basra stands as a monument to economic decay. Unemployment, power shortages and poverty make life here hell. A Shia stronghold, it was neglected under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and since his overthrow 15 years ago, corruption has plagued the city.

    Throughout Saddam Hussein's reign, as well as after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Basra has suffered from enormous under-funding for its infrastructure. Despite the huge oil wealth in the area, the living conditions here are some of the worst in Iraq.

    The people here cannot even rely on clean drinking water. This summer, over 90,000 were hospitalized. Treatment facilities and pipelines are in such poor condition that filthy sewage water from the city's Shatt al-Arab River contaminated the main water supply.

    Even those bathing in the water were poisoned. On our first day in the city, we come across this charity handout of drinking water in a poor neighborhood, young and old desperate to get a safe drink, this most basic of needs.

    As the sun sets over the city, the cooler air draws people out to street markets. Although fewer are protesting now, it's hard to find anyone that isn't angry at the failure of leadership here.

    Hassan Naif is retired, yet he says it's the young men who struggle the most. Finding decent jobs is nearly impossible.

  • Hassan Naif:

    We have all kinds of young graduates, engineers, scientists. You see them with their degrees sitting on the street without a job. They graduate, they take their degree, and put it in their pocket, and get jobs doing hard labor.

    They go and work pushing carts in the marketplace. They do this, and they are engineers.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The majority of Iraqi oil wealth comes from Basra, but pumping oil out of the ground creates few jobs, and people here say they don't benefit from the profits either.

  • Mohammed Karim:

    The government, they are thieves, they are bad, and the same people keep getting key positions. There is no electricity, no water and no jobs, and most of us are graduates. We have degrees. At least, in Saddam's day, you could have something, some of your rights, but now there is nothing.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    : We met Basra's deputy governor in his new temporary office, because the old one was burned down by protesters. He blames the problems here on the central government in Baghdad.

  • Hassan Al Najar:

    Since the beginning, we have demanded Basra's rights by asking for a share of the oil profits, petrodollars and the income from the border ports. But the central government hasn't responded to any of those demands.

    And if they did, we wouldn't have protests. So it was clearly the fault of the central government. If they had given us what we deserve from the budget, we wouldn't have reached this point.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When protests were at their height in September, Iraq's then prime minister promised to make things better, jobs for the protesters. Those jobs never materialized.

  • Hassan Al Najar:

    After the protests, representatives from the prime minister's office came to Basra. They talked about giving us 10,000 jobs. So far, we haven't seen one of those jobs of what they told us we would get.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But Basra's problems are not only the result of government neglect. Under the cover of darkness, in Basra's cafes, young men speak cautiously about powerful Shia militias competing with the local government for control.

    Hareth Mohammed, a 28-year old telecommunications engineer, will only dare refer to these militias as organizations.

  • Hareth Mohammed:

    The main problem is the competition between the politicians and the organizations, because Basra — the main government in Basra, has harbors, oil fields. All the companies competed to get work here.

    When you have a city that contains all the resources for the country, everyone try to take control of the city, try to get a lot from the city, try to get control from harbor and oil fields. So, if everyone fighting for this city, and to take all the rich resources, it will never improve.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But is it dangerous to talk openly about these frustrations?

  • Hareth Mohammed:

    Yes, it's very dangerous. No — not anyone can talk about that.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When the Sunni extremists of ISIS swept across Iraq in 2014, they easily overran the Iraqi army. Shia religious leaders called on young men to join militias, often funded by Iran, to fight against the group.

    Shia heartlands like Basra sent thousands of fighters, many dying in battle. That fight is now over, and the militias have returned home, keeping their guns, and refusing to integrate into the regular army. Their leadership has consolidated power and wealth, determined to get payback for their sacrifices in the war.

    Not everyone is afraid to speak out against the militias. These men waiting by the roadside for laboring work were too desperate to care.

    Haitham Mahde works as a foreman on construction sites.

  • Haitham Mahde:

    We blame the militia parties, the government. They are the same. Islamic parties, the Sunni and Shia, they are all the same. In Saddam's day, we were in a river of corruption, and now we are in a sea of corruption.

    We are walking towards the unknown. Basra is a disaster. We have diseases. We have environmental issues. We don't have safe drinking water. Water is the minimum of human rights, and we don't have it. Can you believe it? The government cannot even keep a fish alive in the water. How do you expect me to live?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Not far away sits the charred remains of militia headquarters, torched by protesters just as angry at armed groups as they are at the government.

    In their rage, they also burned down the Iranian Consulate, too. For now, protests have died down, but anger lingers here, anger at abuses of power and the neglect of millions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Basra, Iraq.

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