Basra protests highlight frustration over Iranian meddling in Iraqi crisis

Observers said Iran has sought to inflame the Basra unrest for its own benefit.
Sunday 09/09/2018
An Iraqi protester holds up an Iranian flag as another lights it up during protests in Basra, on September 7.  (AFP)
Game over. An Iraqi protester holds up an Iranian flag as another lights it up during protests in Basra, on September 7. (AFP)

LONDON - Iran’s influence in neighbouring Iraq was highlighted in the crisis engulfing the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where protesters torched the Iranian consulate as they condemned what they said was Tehran’s control of their country’s politicians. Some protesters shouted “Iran, out, out!” and others burned Iranian flags.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry branded the consulate’s storming as a “savage attack” and its Iraqi counterpart said the incident was “an unacceptable act undermining the interests of Iraq and its international relations.”

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Basra, calling for improving living conditions in the oil-rich city. They blame shortages of electricity and drinking water in the city, which hosts more than 2 million residents, on corrupt officials.

Provincial government buildings, political party offices and militia headquarters were attacked by protesters. More than ten demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces, prompting calls for restraint from human rights groups and the United Nations.

The storming of the Iranian consulate was one day after the country’s Iran-backed political bloc, led by militia leader Hadi al-Amiri, called for the resignation of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government for failing to restore order to Basra.

Amiri, whose bloc came in second in May’s elections, blamed the attacks on the headquarters of Iran-backed militias in Basra on an “American-Saudi conspiracy” to divide the country. His call for Abadi’s resignation was seen as an attempt by the Iran-backed alliance to use the Basra unrest as a pretext to take power.

The bloc backed by influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which ran an anti-corruption campaign, came in first in the election. It is seeking to form a coalition government with Abadi’s bloc, which was third.

Amiri, who is allied with the bloc of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, another Iran-backed politician, reiterated his alliance’s bid to form the next government instead of al-Sadr.

Observers said Iran has sought to inflame the Basra unrest for its own benefit as more Shia voices in Iraq’s south have become critical of Tehran’s meddling in Iraqi affairs. “Iran had sparked the crisis by cutting off its electricity and water supplies to Basra,” said Salam Sarhan, an Iraqi commentator.

Iran is also facing sanctions imposed by the United States, which Abadi said he would abide by.

There are concerns that, if the unrest gets out of control, some of Iraq’s oil production could be affected. “The disruption of Iraq’s oil supply is in Iran’s favour as it would mean that the world, including the United States, cannot afford to have Iranian oil out of the market,” said Sarhan.

Following the attacks on the Iranian consulate and other buildings in Basra, Abadi warned that security forces had orders to “act decisively against the acts of vandalism that accompanied the demonstrations.”

Iraq’s most-revered Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani said the country’s new government should carry out different policies than the previous ones. “The failings of Iraqi political leaders in recent years have caused the anger of people in Basra,” Sistani said in his sermon September 7.

“This reality cannot change if the next government is formed according to the same criteria adopted when forming previous governments. Pressure must be exerted for the new government to be different from its predecessors.”