According to official figures, Basra, the third largest city in Iraq, located in the far south, is inhabited by approximately 2.7 million people. In reality, the number is much higher, but we must bear in mind the inadequacy of field survey procedures, the lack of an electronic governance system, in addition to the migration of citizens from the central and southern regions of Iraq towards Basra city. All these factors must have increased the population growth, but were not included in the Basra census. Among the factors promoting migration to Basra is the search for job opportunities in the private sector, the construction sector, or the oil industry, as there are a large number of oil and non-oil companies, both foreign and local, in various fields and businesses there.

Despite the presence of these oil companies in Basra city, unemployment rates remain unchanged in the country as a whole. Iraqis continue to struggle to find job opportunities in both the public and private sectors; they still lack health, educational, and other social services at the needed scale; and pervasive, deep-rooted corruption prevents them from enjoying a minimal level of welfare.

Robbed by the Corrupt Class

In 2019, “Eliminate Corruption” was a popular slogan in the anti-corruption protests. Demonstrations spread throughout the cities of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands marching against the parties that ruled the country since 2003. The protests brought the country to the brink of collapse, as political parties with armed wings outside state control took sovereign decisions and openly controlled Iraq’s internal and external affairs.

Basra alone produces 2.7 million barrels of crude oil per day, from which Iraqi citizens only receive the toxic fumes produced through oil extraction. Oil fields are operated by both state and foreign companies. Their profits go to the state treasury as well as the pockets of the corrupt, only to be controlled later by a group of influential figures regularly exposed for getting involved in major corruption schemes, or assisting political figures to steal public money.

There is a clear cover-up on the cases of cancer caused by oil extraction operations in southern Iraq, including Basra governorate. Whereas government agencies and the relevant departments do not divulge on the subject, or else state that there is no correlation between oil production and cases of cancer, scientists and specialists have confirmed the close link between them, with the Director of the Environment in Basra Governorate saying: “We have called on the local government, as well as the Basra Oil Company, to pay compensation to the families that suffered from, or lost a member to the diseases caused by hydrocarbon emissions.”

Al-Moussawi added: “There is a direct correlation between the increase in hydrocarbon emissions and the increase in incidences of cancer in areas close to oil production processes. Take the region of Nahran Omar for example, where we saw more than once how oil slick spread over homes and lands, causing the death of farming crops there.”

All signs point to a cover-up on the cases of cancer caused by oil extraction. It is evident that opening this dangerous file may reveal the complicity of the regulatory and government agencies working in this sector. That is not limited to the Basra governorate, as there are gas emissions in Kirkuk, Mosul, Baiji and other governorates as well, where an abundance of oil wells and fields exist – all the same, the issue is more intense in the cities of southern Iraq, especially Basra.

Clearly, there is no commitment to international standards concerning gas emissions, the rate of which must be adhered to by state oil institutions as well as public companies and oil sector investors in Iraq. This lack of commitment has led to a decades-long neglect in controlling gas emissions, which has tangibly affected the surrounding climate and public health, and caused the birth of deformed children. 

“Disease Walks With Us”

42-year-old Raghad Jassem Karim lives in Nahran Omar, located in the northwest of Basra governorate. Karim suffers from cancer, as he lives in an area close to one of the largest oil fields in Iraq. He struggles to continue his chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer. We met him at his flat, a few meters away from the Nahran Omar oil field. He said: “About a year ago, I began to feel my health deteriorate little by little, so I decided to go to the hospital for a medical check up. The first doctor told me I was suffering from a stomach problem. I was not completely convinced. I went to another doctor, an oncologist, after I felt the presence of a tumor in my abdominal area. And indeed, after conducting all the necessary examinations, it was revealed that I had colon cancer.”

To obtain better healthcare, Karim left Iraq for Lebanon to receive treatment at his own expense. Karim did not obtain any financial support from Iraqi government agencies or non-profit organizations. In Lebanon, he underwent several surgeries which cost him thousands of dollars. This added to his burdens and incurred additional costs on him and his family, causing him additional psychological strain. 

Karim said: “We have become afraid of patient visitations informing us that we have cancer. Disease walks with us and accompanies everyone around. Many people in my area, even my relatives I believe, suffer from cancer, but are afraid to visit the doctor. Really, this is a psychological struggle with the self each one of us  experiences daily.”

Karim spoke to us with the oil flames visible behind him, saying: “I stand here, boiling on the inside, as I watch the burning of flare gas, which caused my cancer. I still suffer to this day. My brother also died of cancer in 2007. After him, my cousin died of cancer. Here in our region, there are countless diseases, but I can tell you that here, cancer is as frighteningly common as the flu.”

Karim said: “No Iraqi official has visited us before, although we live in one of the most dangerously polluted areas in the world. Government agencies must compensate us for the physical and psychological harms we have suffered. Our voices are not always heard. Nahran Omar, where my family and I live, is a disaster zone, not suitable for living, but we do not have anywhere else to live, houses in other areas are extremely expensive.”

Iraq has the fourth largest oil reserves in the world. It is one of the richest countries in the world, with its 2021 budget reaching about $103 billion. Yet, the Iraqi people struggle to obtain their rights, poverty continues to ravage them as a result of the unfair distribution of wealth, and political parties control the country’s wealth ever since they came to power following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Foreign Companies Involved

A lot of the oil companies that work in southern Iraq, including Basra city, do not disclose the amounts of flare gas that burns during the oil production process. Recently, BBC released a documentary on oil fields in Ramliyah in the Basra governorate, which revealed that British Petroleum did not disclose the volume of gas flare that is burned in its oil fields, despite routine flaring being a major cause of serious health injuries to those living within the area and around it. 

The film revealed cases of cancerous diseases, including childhood leukemia, caused by the oil activity of British Petroleum. The Iraqi government continues to deny any link between these cases and the gasses emitted during oil extraction processes. The areas closest to the sources of oil production, such as the West Qurna field, Rumaila, and Nahran Omar, have the highest number of injuries on record.

The same investigation revealed that giant oil companies, including British Petroleum, Eni, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell, do not disclose the millions of tons of emissions resulting from routine flaring during oil production, despite these flares containing carcinogenic chemicals. For several years, the Iraqi government has not developed a serious plan to invest in the burnt gas, in order to use it as an important source of energy.

Illegal Oil Smuggling

Smuggling Iraqi oil is nothing new. The Islamic State, during its occupation of Mosul, smuggled oil to Syria. And after the liberation of Mosul, Iran-affiliated armed factions were accused of smuggling crude oil to Iran, so the country could extend its influence over the liberated areas in Iraq. Time and time again, Iraqi authorities uncover oil smuggling networks. For example, the National Security Agency in Basra Governorate (southern Iraq) recently thwarted the largest oil smuggling operation, carried out by puncturing the crude oil export lines in Zubair field and transporting them to a dirt road, to be smuggled later to other neighboring countries, or other regions in northern Iraq.

The smuggling network, the Iraqi authorities announced following their arrest, included a number of high-ranking officers and employees. It managed to smuggle nearly 50 oil tanks, at a rate of 75 million liters a month. The oil stolen from the punctured pipes or the warehouses of crude oil, was then smuggled to neighboring countries, with the aid of customs officials and the participation of corrupt security men.

In an interview with political analyst Raad Hashim, he puts it thus: “It is well known that there are financial revenues belonging to political parties and militias in Iraq, as the Iraqi economy is by its nature a rentier economy that depends on oil production and export. But what is less known is that Iraq, for nearly 10 years after 2003, did not have meters that calculated the amount of oil exported abroad, and that the daily export operations took place without meters or measurement. This paved the way for the corrupt class to exploit the space surplus, so to speak, between meter readings and the actual amounts smuggled by armed factions and partisan groups.”

“Iraqi citizens have not benefited at all from the wealth accrued from the oil export industry,” Hashem adds, “which is marred by allegations of corruption for the benefit of certain parties or mafias. Large groups in cities such as Basra and Kirkuk have benefited from this wealth, smuggling illegally or outside government oversight. Moreover, there is significant overlap between government agencies and influential armed groups in Iraq. A huge number of smugglers belong to various Iraqi clans, whose interests meet with the interests of the corrupt, the beneficiaries and partisans who form their own empires which get represented by different armed groups. Combined, these empires and armed groups form a body that operates outside the scope of Iraqi  jurisdiction. And recently they have grown larger, and so did their financial reserves.”

A Far-reaching Network of Corruption. Who Protects It?

According to Hashim, “The Popular Mobilization Forces use their influence and the power of their armed factions to control the state’s resources. Such is the case of the Iraqi ports in al-Basr, where a deliberately large leak allows the mafias to smuggle oil to Iran and other countries across the sea, under various names and facades. On the ground, these illegal exports belong to militias. In the ships, they belong to the rogue countries that engage in such operations.

“And according to a report from Transparency International, Iraq ranks very low on the Corruption Perceptions Index 2021. This is a dangerous indicator of the decline of transparency in all sectors of the Iraqi state. This, at a time when Iraqis are struggling to obtain job opportunities, a decent life, and the rights they were denied in their home country. From time to time, the US Treasury Department issues sanctions against certain Iraqi politicians and parties, but all signs indicate that corruption will remain for a long time to come, at the very marrow of the state and its infrastructure. 

“The oil smuggling networks are protected by armed factions and outlaw clans, they associate with drug mafias and share common interests. They are not is not necessary for these factions to have association and service with terrorist parties. The people’s money is misguided in ways that are not accepted by the Sharia or the law, and what prompted these parties to continue with these actions is that they found government negligence, or even government complicity in combating corruption,” says Hashem.

Hashem adds: “Some honest security officials who have no party affiliations make serious attempts to limit corruption and fight oil smugglers. Unfortunately, these officials face deterrent policies and may face transference or even expulsion. That is why security men fear for their lives and the lives of their families when they pursue corruption files.”

A Deadly Quota, Zero Political Will

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the term “sectarian quota” became popular among the ruling parties in Iraq, and soon after, positions were divided along sectarian lines. This system remains in place today, and many Iraqis believe it is the root cause of all the country’s problems. which caused the weakening of state law, because a large number of official institutions are under the control of political parties and factions outside the scope of the state, and the economic offices of the factions are spread The owner of the weapon, in several regions of the country, especially the areas liberated by ISIS, these parties control the division of projects and contracting among themselves.

Successive governments have ruled Iraq, often announcing the end of corruption; they formed major bodies and institutions to earnestly pursue the problem of corruption, but to no avail. For as long as the “quota” system exists, as long as economic committees retain control over wealth and contracts, and as long as there is an absence of political will to hold the country’s top officials to account, corruption will remain. 

Hashem says: “Any case that targets an influential party or a political mafia in the country gets closed, either by influence or bribes. The corrupt class used to settle and end the biggest corruption cases by paying bribes. Fighting corruption must be undertaken in a typical manner, excluding none. It is unlikely that the current government will achieve this, because the heads of corruption are from the parties in power.

VIAAzhar Al-Rubaie