Iraqi protesters storm Najaf airport, briefly halt air traffic

Protests in Najaf follow demonstrations in Basra decrying poor government services and corruption.
Saturday 14/07/2018
Iraqi protesters stand outside the terminal entrance in Najaf International Airport in the city, on July 13. (AFP)
Iraqi protesters stand outside the terminal entrance in Najaf International Airport in the city, on July 13. (AFP)

LONDON – Air traffic has resumed at the airport in the Iraqi city of Najaf after protesters withdrew, state television reported late on Friday.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of Iraqis stormed the airport and halted air traffic in the Shia holy city of Najaf, extending protests following demonstrations in the southern city of Basra decrying poor government services and corruption.

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, expressed solidarity with protesters, saying they faced an “extreme lack of public services” such as electricity in the suffocating summer heat.

“We can only stand with our dear citizens in their demands as we feel their great suffering,” Sistani said through an aide during a Friday sermon heard on live television.

Sistani, who has millions of followers, rarely intervenes in politics but has wide sway over public opinion.

Two airport security officials said hundreds of demonstrators entered Najaf airport’s main hall and walked on to the tarmac. Witnesses said security forces allowed protesters to enter the main airport building.

Earlier in the day, residents took to the streets of the oil city Basra for a fifth straight day and blocked access to the nearby commodities port of Umm Qasr. Protests were also held in the cities of Amara and Nasiriya as public anger mounted over unemployment and delivery of basic services.

Iraqi politicians face growing unrest as they try to form a coalition government after a May 12 parliamentary election tainted by allegations of fraud.

A political bloc led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won a majority in the poll on an anti-corruption platform which had appeal across Iraq’s electorate.

In Amara, protesters occupied the headquarters of the provincial governorate, threw stones at branches of the Shia Dawa party and the powerful Badr Organisation, which has close ties to Iran, and beat up policemen, said a security official.

Security forces pushed them back.

A port worker said the road leading into the Umm Qasr terminal near Basra was blocked and trucks had no way of getting in or out. Port officials told employees to go home.

Protesters hoping to catch his attention stormed the hotel where he was meeting tribal leaders. But he had already left.

The government will quickly address the demands of the protesters, the Council of Ministers said in a statement.

Basra oil officials have said the protests, which have also taken place near major oilfields, have not impacted crude production.

Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 percent of OPEC producer Iraq’s state revenues.

Any potential disruptions to production could severely impact the country’s limping economy. Umm Qasr receives Iraq’s grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments.

Iraq’s government will be hard-pressed to improve life in Basra, a crumbling city once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of canals resembling the Italian city.

Iraq needs tens of billions of dollars to rebuild after a three-year war with Islamic State.

Long neglected, Basra is one of the few cities in the Middle East without an effective water treatment system. Many of its waterways are stagnant cesspools. State officials blame a public funding crisis caused by years of low oil prices.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi flew straight into the southern city from Brussels where he attended a NATO summit to discuss the Islamic State group, and immediately held talks with officials, a statement from his office said.

The protests erupted in Basra on Sunday and security forces opened fire, killing a protester which sparked further anger.

Demonstrators have set tyres ablaze to block roads and tried to storm government installations.

As well as unemployment, those involved are frustrated by rising living costs and a lack of basic services in the city, the capital of Basra province.

Hundreds of people holding Iraqi flags gathered outside the regional headquarters in Basra city centre Friday, with security forces including riot police deployed heavily.

In an apparent first step to calm frayed nerves, Abadi in Basra ordered local officials to sort out “the legal status” of security guards employed by the interior ministry at oil facilities, his office said.

These guards receive no benefits and work without contracts unlike their peers at the interior ministry.

At a later meeting with local tribal leaders Abadi pledged to “spend the necessary funds for Basra, including on services and reconstruction”, a source close to the prime minister told AFP.

On Thursday Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luaibi said protesters tried to break into an oil installation in the West Qurna-2 oil field of Basra province.

In a statement released by his office, Luaibi said the demonstrators failed to enter the area but had set fire to a gate and a security post.

Officially, 10.8 percent of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60 percent of the population are aged under 24.

Abadi has vowed to rebuild the economy, ravaged by years of conflict, but frustrations have been growing especially in the oil-rich south.

Iraq is the second biggest producer of crude in the OPEC oil cartel, with 153 billion barrels of proven reserves.

The oil sector accounts for 89 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq’s export revenues, but only one percent of jobs as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)