Corruption, deep disparity mark Iraq's oil legacy post-2003

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Nahran Omar, Iraq, Mar. 25: The oil is pumped 24 hours a day several meters from Raghed Jasim's home in Iraq's crude-rich southern heartland. Gas flares from the field light the night sky bright orange, spewing acrid smoke; when the wind picks up, the 40-year old's clothes are coated black.

For Iraq's poorest, evidence of the country's monumental oil wealth is inescapable. So is the knowledge that very little of it trickles down to them.

Jasim's savings were depleted when he was diagnosed with cancer last year, a disease he is convinced was caused by the toxic plumes. Twenty years since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and remade Iraq's political order with the promise of democracy and freedom, he has one wish: To find a way to leave.

"There is no future here for my children," he said. Basra province, which boasts most of Iraq's oil reserves, is symbolic of the deep disparities that have endured since the 2003 invasion. Basra continually bewilders experts, envoys and residents: How can a relatively stable province so rich in resources rank among the poorest and most under-developed in the country?

"Of course, I blame the corrupt Iraqi government," said Jasim, a policeman, echoing a widespread view in the region. "But I blame the Americans too. They replaced our leaders with thieves."

Local leaders in Basra talk of the oil reserves as both a blessing and a curse. They say resources bring affluence but have also given rise to vicious competition between political elites and armed groups at the expense of the Iraqi people.

The power-sharing system in place since 2003, which divides the state and its institutions along ethnic and sectarian lines, sucks oil wealth into a pool of corruption and patronage. The higher the oil price, the more entrenched this system becomes as sectarian-based parties claim lucrative ministry portfolios, appoint loyalists in key positions and dole out public jobs to ensure support. According to the International Monetary Fund, public sector employment tripled from 2004 to 2013, but service delivery in health, education and power sectors remained inadequate.

The result is that elections keep establishment parties in power. Voter turnout has dropped to record lows.

Apart from institutional failures, air pollution is extensive in Basra, and salinity levels arising from a severe fresh water crisis are leading causes of illness, according to local researchers. Unemployment is rampant, with more than half the population below the age of 25.

Public anger gave rise to violent protests in 2018, the precursor to mass anti-government protests in the capital a year later. But a swift crackdown by security forces and assassinations by armed groups have created a climate of fear.

"The killings silenced many activists," said Basra activist Ammar Sarhan. "Business continues as usual."

The 2003 toppling of Saddam propelled the oil-rich country into the global economy, opening the doors to foreign investment. In pre-invasion planning, U.S. advisors and their Iraqi opposition allies in exile had envisioned a shock system of reforms that would revamp Iraq's oil industry and fund post-war reconstruction.

Instead, violence hobbled oil production for years. A charm offensive by then-Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahrestani paved the way for major oil contracts to be awarded in 2007 and 2009. Today exports reach over 3 million barrels a day, double the rate in the early 2000s. The state budget, which in 2021 reached up to $90 billion, is financed almost entirely by oil revenues. Still, the government fails to deliver essential services, including water and electricity. (AP)

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