Iraq struggles to quell deadly Basra protests

Some 30,000 people have reportedly been hospitalised due to polluted water in Basra.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Escalating violence. Iraqi protesters demonstrate against a lack of basic services in Basra, on September 6. (AFP)
Escalating violence. Iraqi protesters demonstrate against a lack of basic services in Basra, on September 6. (AFP)

LONDON - Iraqi authorities are struggling to contain protests over poor public living conditions in the oil-rich southern city of Basra. At least ten demonstrators died in clashes with security forces.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets to call for improving basic services in the city, which hosts more than 2 million residents but lacks sufficient electricity and drinking water and suffers from high pollution.

Some 30,000 people have reportedly been hospitalised due to polluted water in Basra.

Protesters blamed the collapse of the city’s infrastructure on widespread corruption at the hands of successive government officials. Demonstrators also demanded jobs as many households complain of failing to make ends meet.

Protesters burned provincial government buildings, political party offices and militia headquarters. Two policemen were killed and scores of security forces members were injured in clashes with protesters.

Security officials in Basra ordered a curfew in the city but the measure was cancelled minutes before it was to go into force amid fears the move would further infuriate protesters.

Despite an increase in security forces patrolling the streets, mass protests continued. Operations in Iraq’s main seaport of Umm Qasr, near Basra, were suspended for one day when protesters blocked the site’s entrance.

Large-scale protests began in Basra in July and spread to other Shia-majority cities in southern Iraq but wound down after government promises to improve the situation with a multibillion-dollar emergency plan.

Influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose electoral bloc came first in May’s election after running an anti-corruption campaign, publicly supported the protests. He called for an emergency session of parliament to find “radical and immediate” solutions to the crisis in Basra.

“We will be uncompromising and you have been warned. Be ready,” he said.

Al-Sadr, who is allied with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has yet to form a government because rival political blocs are challenging attempts to form a coalition government.

Challenging al-Sadr’s bid is an Iran-backed alliance led by the bloc of militia leader Hadi al-Amiri and includes the bloc of Vice-President Nuri al-Maliki.

Abadi, who ordered security forces not to use live ammunition against protesters, began an investigation after demonstrators died in Basra. He said “those who pour oil on the fire” were harming the city.

Amnesty International said security forces had used excessive force against protesters.

“Security forces, for the second time since July, opened fire on protesters who were demanding improved public services, including water, electricity, better medical services and an end to corruption. The Iraqi authorities are obligated to respect the right to peaceful protests and even if protesters are violent, only the minimum force necessary to address it can be used,” Razaw Salihy, Amnesty International’s Iraq researcher, said in a statement.

“The authorities must bring those suspected to be responsible for these deaths to justice in fair trials. Iraqi lawmakers must urge the prime minister to uphold his promise of an investigation and should ensure that it is conducted in a thorough and effective manner.”

UN Envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis called on Iraqi authorities to avoid using “disproportionate, lethal force against the demonstrators.” In a statement, he urged Baghdad “to do its utmost to respond to the people’s rightful demands of clean water and electricity supplies as a matter of urgency.”

The European Union called for the formation of a government in Iraq “as soon as possible” and urged authorities to “show maximum restraint” in dealing with protesters.

“The escalating violence at protests in the southern part of Iraq… underlines the urgent need for a formation of a representative new government that will respond to the aspirations of the Iraqi people,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in a statement.

There are fears unrest would again spread to other southern provinces as well as Baghdad.

Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone was hit by three mortar shells, the first such attack in years, although no one claimed responsibility. No casualties were reported but security forces are trying to determine the identity of the assailants.