Iraq probes deaths at Basra protests

Five protesters and two policemen were killed during two days of clashes in Iraq’s main southern city Basra.
Wednesday 05/09/2018
Iraqi protesters try to storm and burn the governor's building in Basra, during demonstations demanding better public services and jobs, on September 4. (AP)
Iraqi protesters try to storm and burn the governor's building in Basra, during demonstations demanding better public services and jobs, on September 4. (AP)

LONDON — Iraq’s prime minister has ordered an investigation into violent protests in the southern city of Basra that killed and wounded several civilians and security forces.

In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Haider al-Abadi accused “those who pour oil on the fire” of endangering the city.

“Our orders are clear in banning the firing of live ammunition during demonstrations,” Abadi said.

Since July, Iraqis in the southern Shia heartland have been protesting joblessness and poor public services. The protests have often turned violent, with protesters attacking government offices and security forces.

Five protesters were killed and 16 more were injured during a second day of clashes with security forces in Iraq’s main southern city Basra. Two policemen were killed and seven other were wounded during the confrontations Monday.

Protesters are angry over electricity outages during the hot Iraqi summer, a lack of jobs and proper government services and entrenched corruption.

Basra residents say salt seeping into the water supply has made it undrinkable and sent hundreds to hospital, proof, they say, that infrastructure has been allowed to collapse in the part of the country that produces most of its oil wealth.

Hundreds of people gathered at local government buildings, hurled petrol bombs and stones and attempted to block roads leading to the building for a second night. Some protesters stormed one of the provincial government buildings and set it alight.

Security forces fired live rounds in the air as well as teargas to try to disperse the crowd, local sources said. Smoke could be seen billowing from the outer perimeter of the provincial government headquarters, where many had gathered earlier on Tuesday to mourn a protester who died on Monday night, Yasser Makki.

The crowds near the government buildings had largely dispersed by 11 p.m., after a citywide curfew was imposed by the city’s security officials.

Iraq’s second biggest city, Basra is a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric and former leader of anti-American sectarian militia who has recast himself as an anti-corruption campaigner.

In a tweet, Sadr appeared to back the protesters, condemning the tactics used by some members of the security forces against who he said were “unarmed demonstrators who only want to live with dignity”.

The public anger has swelled at a time when politicians are struggling to form a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in May. Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has expressed support for the protests.

The Iraqi prime minister suspended the electricity minister last month, saying his government had begun punishing those responsible for poor services in Basra. 

The government has already announced an emergency plan in response to the protests, while promising billions of dollars in investment for southern Iraq.

But protesters are wary of such pledges from the outgoing administration, as Iraqi lawmakers are in the process of forming a new government after May’s election.

Political corruption has also fuelled protests, which erupted in Basra on July 8 before spreading across southern Iraq and reaching the capital.

A litany of social problems — from unemployment to electricity cuts — have also been a central complaint of demonstrators.

Iraqis have also called on authorities to clean up the water supply, with pollution blamed for putting 20,000 people in hospital in Basra province alone.

Protests had died down recently but since Friday large numbers have taken to the streets again.

Since early July, 21 people have been killed in protests across Iraq. At least one of those was shot dead by security forces, while authorities have accused “vandals” of infiltrating the rallies.

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)