Basra protesters deny accusations of ties to US
BASRA - Iraq’s third-largest city of Basra has been rocked by protests since July over what demonstrators say are a lack of public services, poor infrastructure, inadequate garbage collection, electricity shortages and toxic water supply.
Demonstrators say authorities accused them of having links to the US Consulate in Basra, charges they deny.
During the demonstrations, government buildings, militia headquarters, the Iranian Consulate and the offices of political parties were set on fire or vandalised.
Riham Yacoub, 27, a women’s rights activist, recently led large protests. The first woman to do so in the city, Yacoub found herself the subject of accusations.
“A few hours just after the protest itself, some photos published by Iraqi politicians on Facebook accused us to be linked to the US Consulate,” Yacoub said. “I received dozens of threats. I often received messages from Iranians via my social media who accuse me of the consulate’s torching.
“All that happened after the Iran-based Mehra outlet released a report accusing me and other activists to be linked to the US to encourage riots in Basra.”
“I am going through difficult time and my close friends even prevent me from going to my house to keep me safe,” said Yacoub. “My parents are afraid but I never gave up and will keep protesting until our demands are met.”
In a parliamentary emergency session in September, a member from Basra accused the US Consulate in the city of coordinating with local NGOs in torching numerous buildings.
Security forces that arrested protesters did not appear to have the proper paperwork from the courts.
“They did not show an arrest warrant or any other legal document to justify my arrest,” said Mahdi Salah, 26, who said he had been detained in July for six days by the Iraqi Security Forces.
“During the investigation process, they lashed me with a black rubber pipe, punched me on the face and other parts of my body but their torture and ill-treatment did not prevent me from going back to the protests again,” he said.
“The investigator asked me a lot of personal and religious questions, not related to protests. For instance, they asked me ‘How many Shia imams are there’ and ‘Are you Sunni or Shia?’” Salah said.
Loudia Raymond, 24, a Christian activist from Basra, said she does not feel safe in the oil-rich southern city.
“The policeman who was standing in front of a Basra governorate building asked me why would a Christian protest,” Raymond said. “Because of militias, Basra is not safe at all, for Christians in particular. Thousands of Christians fled Basra on the last ten years for security reasons.”
Mahdi al-Tamimi, the head of the Ministry of Human Rights office in Basra, said six detained protesters were released in November and there are more than seven in jail, waiting for trial.
Iraq’s Ministry of Interior didn’t answer requests for comment.
Journalists were not spared accusations. Issam al-Mohammed, 24, a cameraman for Sky Michigan TV, fled Basra to Istanbul after receiving threats from militias accusing him of working for a television station linked to the United States.
“I was covering the protests since July and I receive negative comments when people heard the name ‘Sky Michigan TV’ but in fact it is an Iraqi TV based in the United States. It is watched by Arabs abroad but the militias didn’t understand that,” Mohammed said.
Some protesters admitted to setting fire to the Iranian Consulate.
Mohammed Jawad, 24, said: “I and another 20 protesters threw bottles filled with fuel at the Iranian Consulate and not only the Iranian Consulate. We also targeted all Iran-backed militias.”
He said he relocated to Baghdad after he was threatened by militias in Basra. “I was threatened by phone calls and Facebook messenger, so my family has forced me to leave Basra,” he said.
As his way of protesting against religious political parties and militias, Jawad said he carries a picture of Mia Khalifa, a US porn star of Lebanese origin.
Another protester, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said he left Iraq being threatened by Iran-backed militias for taking part in the torching of the Iranian Consulate.
“I don’t regret what I did. I will remain proud of myself because I torched Basra’s Iranian Consulate to send a message to Iran-backed militias,” he said. “I feel that I was born again when I torched it.”
The Iranian Consulate was not the only diplomatic building attacked. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in September that Iran-supported militias in Iraq had fired rockets against the US Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Basra.