Baghdad, Iraq – Is the United States behind the protests in southern Iraq? Well, the answer to that question is both yes and no.
Yes, because the US led the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, which destroyed much of the infrastructure the country needed to remain a modern society.
No, because before the US, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein punished the south’s residents by not building infrastructure after they rose up against him during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
But there was another game afoot here that did allegedly involve the US.
The protests in the south, which kicked off in Basra almost two weeks ago, were sparked when Iran stopped supplying electricity to that region after it said it was owed $1.5bn in unpaid bills.
The protesters didn’t blame Iran but pointed to what they called an inept and corrupt Iraqi government. However, in recent days Al Jazeera has been told, off the record, that the US put pressure on Iraq not to pay the Iranians.
Following its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal, in May, the US is currently preparing new sanctions against Tehran – and it’s rallying support for those measures from allies.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Iraqi politician Raheem al-Darajji said he thinks the US is using Iraq.
“I personally believe that there is some sort of pressure being orchestrated by the US government on the authorities in Iraq not to pay Iran for electricity,” he said.
When pressed on why he thought the US may be doing this, he replied that “it seems there is an unannounced proxy war carried out by the US against Iran and the US administration clearly wants the Iraqi government to be part of it”.
Iraq, however, shares a huge border with Iran and has enjoyed close ties to it since the US-led invasion.
Putting a strain on that relationship by withholding money for bills is seen as dangerous by political observers.
“From my conversations, I think the US has applied pressure on Iraq to withhold Iranian money, but there are other factors at play, including a weak government, unable to stand up to pressure,” political analyst Ahmed Rushdi told Al Jazeera.
For the residents of Basra, international political intrigue matters little.
Through the time of Saddam, the US and now Iraqi democracy, they have seen little change in their lives over the decades and have now taken to the streets to express their anger.