Iraq’s main port closed amid deadly protests in Basra

Oil exports, which are handled at offshore terminals, remained untouched by the unrest in Basra.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Trucks are seen at Iraq’s Umm Qasr port near Basra. (Reuters)
Trucks are seen at Iraq’s Umm Qasr port near Basra. (Reuters)

LONDON – Iraq’s main seaport closed down on Thursday following clashes between protestors and security forces in the nearby southern city of Basra in which one demonstrator died and 25 were injured the previous night.

Port employees said that all operations had ceased on Thursday morning at Umm Qasr port – the main lifeline for grain and other commodity imports that feed the country – after protestors blocked the entrance. Trucks and staff were unable to get in or out of the complex.

Oil exports, which are handled at offshore terminals, remained untouched by the unrest. Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 percent of Iraqi state revenues.

The protesters began blocking the entrance to Umm Qasr port, which lies about 60 km (40 miles) from Basra, on Wednesday night. They also blocked the highway from Basra to Baghdad and set fire to a provincial government building.

Thousands of protesters massed Thursday outside the local government offices in Basra, partly damaged by fire in demonstrations that have seen seven people killed this week.

The gathering came after the authorities in Basra cancelled a curfew announced earlier by their counterparts in Baghdad, only minutes before it had been due to take effect.

Security forces deployed massively in the area and encircled the protesters.

Elsewhere in the city, calm after days of unrest sparked by anger over poor public services, firefighters were busy all morning trying to extinguish blazes.

They trained their hoses on flames still burning at the provincial headquarters, which protesters have targeted with Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices.

The massive complex surrounded by concrete walls is seen by the protesters as a symbol of a corrupt leadership that has failed to deliver basic services in the region.

The southern province of Basra is rich in oil and is the only one in Iraq with access to the sea.

Residents in Basra, a city of more than 2 million people, say the water supply has become contaminated with salt, making them vulnerable and desperate in the hot summer months. Hundreds of people have been hospitalised from drinking it.

A Health Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Baghdad that 6,280 people had been recently hospitalised with diarrhoea due to the oversalinated water.

Public anger has grown at a time when politicians are struggling to form a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in May. Residents of the south complain of decades of neglect in the region that produces the bulk of Iraq’s oil wealth.

Leading political figures, embroiled in government formation negotiations in Baghdad, have scrambled to respond to the intensifying crisis, condemning rivals for inaction.

At a news conference on Thursday, Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia cleric whose electoral bloc came first in May’s national election, called for an emergency televised session of parliament to discuss the crisis in Basra, a city “without water, electricity or dignity”.

Iraq’s second biggest city, Basra is a stronghold of Sadr who has recast himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and has allied himself with incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The prime minister said he would be ready to attend a meeting of parliament with the ministers and officials concerned to try to find a resolution.

Abadi convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss the unrest. He ordered the Interior Ministry to conduct an immediate investigation into the protests and to instruct security forces not to use live ammunition.

Parliament convened for the first time on Monday, but failed to elect a speaker as mandated, delaying its next meeting to September 15.

Wednesday night’s death brought the total number of protesters killed during clashes since Monday to seven, with dozens more injured. Tens of security forces members had also been injured in the violence, some by a hand grenade, local health and security officials said.

The Basra head of Iraq’s Commission for Human Rights, Mahdi al-Tamimi, called for an immediate investigation into the protesters’ deaths, adding that most of the victims had been shot.

(Arab Weekly and news agencies)