Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets of Najaf, Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Karbala, rallying against rising unemployment, corruption, poor governance and perceived Iranian interference.
Smaller protests have also erupted in the capital, Baghdad.
The scale and ferocity of the protests have seen security forces use live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannon on the crowds, killing at least 14 since July 8, according to police and medical sources.
Despite being home to oilfields that account for the vast majority of the oil Iraq exports, these southern areas, like most of Iraq, remain largely underdeveloped, with residents suffering from chronic power outages, lack of access to clean and safe drinking water and uncollected waste.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who heads a fragile caretaker government, has pledged to release $3bn for the fledgeling services.
But with the demonstrators continuing to take the unusual step of ramping up their protests against both his government and Iraq’s main ally and powerful neighbour, Iran, fears are growing that they could spiral out of control.
How did the protests start?
Protesters gathered in the streets of Basra on July 8 after Iran, which provides 1,400 megawatts of electricity to the region, suddenly decreased energy supplies.
The electricity cut exacerbated a heat wave, forcing residents to endure sweltering temperatures hovering around 48 degrees Celsius.
Tehran refused to comment on why it took the drastic step, but analysts suggest it could have been to pressure the Iraqi government to pay outstanding bills for its energy imports, a process that has become increasingly complicated since the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal.
Saad Jawad, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, said the US’ withdrawal from the deal “strangled” Iran’s economy and placed it “in an economic corner”.
“The Iranians want to tell to the Americans that if you continue to prevent us from exporting oil, or the EU from investing in Iran, we will create problems for you everywhere – Syria, Iraq, the Gulf. Wherever.”
Jawad said the situation in southern Iraq had also been compounded by a water crisis after Iran began buildings dams on its side of the border.
This contributed to a “massive water shortage,” Jawad said, with large parts of the Tigris river running dry.
The amount of water flowing through Iraq’s rivers has fallen by at least 40 percent in recent decades, with the shortage of irrigation water preventing the cultivation of strategic crops in Basra, an area once called the “Venice of the Gulf”, he added.
Who are the protesters?
So far, the protests have been concentrated in Iraq’s southern Shia heartlands, but appear to have been limited in scope and size amid security and curfew constraints.
Zaid al-Ali, a former legal adviser to the United Nations on reform in Iraq, said while protests had taken place in areas that are “exclusively Shia”, security concerns in areas retaken from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group could explain why they had not spread further north.
“After the war with ISIL, large areas of Anbar province became military zones, so there’s no scope for people to protest there,” al-Ali told Al Jazeera.
He dismissed conspiracy theories circulating on social media that Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc finished first in May’s parliamentary elections, helped incite the protests.
There is “zero evidence suggesting any one party or individual is backing them”, al-Ali said, with the “means and mechanisms they are using, suggesting they are independent”.
Last week, protesters set fire to office buildings used by al-Abadi’s Islamic Dawa Party, the Iranian-backed Al-Badr Organisation and the Shia Supreme Islamic Council Party.
“With virtually every political party having their offices attacked, what we’re seeing is likely spontaneous and organic.
“These protests are about the poor standard of living many Iraqis face, poverty – people, in essence, challenging the democratic legitimacy of the state,” al-Ali said.
“The protesters are expressing deep frustration with the state, regardless of who makes it up.”
Anti-Iranian sentiment has also been seen during the protests, with demonstrators burning photos of the leader of the Iranian Revolution – Ruhollah Khomeini – and blaming Tehran for supporting failed governments in Iraq.
What are protesters demanding?
Mamoon Alabbasi, a political analyst focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, said anger against the government had been “brewing” well before the recent electricity cuts.
“The protests started spontaneously with people demonstrating against poor living conditions, as they have many times in the past.
“But news of the protests encouraged Iraqis in other Shia-majority provinces to take to the streets or occupy government buildings, including Najaf airport.”
Most of the areas convulsed by protests have seen demonstrators demand the government ease poverty, create jobs and fight corruption.
Alabbasi said anger with the ruling elite could be illustrated by the low turnout in May’s election.
“Voter turnout in May’s election was the lowest since 2005, which shows how little trust people have in their politicians,” he said.
Residents of southern Iraq, which produces more than 70 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves, have long complained that they do not benefit from the country’s oil wealth, and have also expressed anger at the political deadlock following the election, Alabassi said.
“[And] with political rivals discussing forming government coalitions that are similar to the ones that they’ve always had – it looks likely that nothing will change.”
How have Iraq’s leaders responded?
Al-Abadi, who is seeking to retain his position as prime minister despite coming in third, dispatched soldiers to Basra from both the elite Counter Terrorism Service and the Army’s Ninth Division, regiments which led the attack on the northern city of Mosul when it was held by ISIL.
While the moves helped reduce tensions, he faces accusations by Amnesty International of trying to cover up the abuse of demonstrators. About 300 people who were initially arrested have reportedly been released, but the government continues to block social media sites.
The prime minister promised jobs for those living in areas around the oil fields and announced allocations for urgent projects. But many demonstrators said the pledges did not go far enough and did not address their central demand that some ministers be dismissed.
On Twitter, al-Sadr called on political blocs to halt negotiations over a new government until the protesters’ demands are met. It was his first public comment since the protests began.
The demonstrators have also been emboldened by Iraq’s most prominent Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on federal and local agencies to “seriously” address the protesters’ demands.
“Everyone wants to ride that wave to show that they are not corrupt,” Alabbasi added.
With the final results of the May 12 elections yet to be approved by a federal court, and the last parliament’s term ending on June 31, analysts expect the current wave of protests to drag on even after a new government is formed.
Zaid al-Ali told Al Jazeera that the current “cycle of protests will to continue for the foreseeable future”.
He added: “These protests have been going for virtually every year for the past 10 years, with ministers pledging to address the protesters’ demands – increase investment, job opportunities – that never works.”
“The oil money that exists in Iraq on a per-person, per capita basis, does in no way guarantee job opportunities for everyone and improve stand of living.
“To achieve that you would need to diversify the economy. And right now, Iraq is the most oil-dependent country in the world.”
Bilal Wahab, a Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed, adding that none of the country’s political parties had addressed the “deep-seated grievances many Iraqis face”.
“What we’re seeing is a fracturing of the ruling Shia house in Iraq,” he told Al Jazeera.
“While they have been peaceful so far, the chances of them becoming violent and chaotic are quite possible – considering that guns that are widely available and the militias that could ride this tide.”