Iraq’s main seaport closed down Thursday following clashes between protesters and security forces in the nearby southern city of Basra in which one demonstrator died and 25 were wounded the previous night.
Several hundred protesters took to Basra’s streets again Thursday afternoon. As they demonstrated, the provincial government headquarters – the center of protests in recent days – was engulfed in flames, local police and army sources said.
No protesters were near the building when the fire broke out, the sources said, adding that the sound of a blast had been heard beforehand.
Separately, protesters set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council and the largest Iran-backed Shiite militia group in the country, the Badr Organization, local security sources said.
They also attacked the local offices of the state-run al-Iraqiya TV channel, in the fourth consecutive night of violent unrest.
Southern Iraq has erupted in unrest in recent weeks as protesters express rage over collapsing infrastructure, power cuts and corruption.
Port employees said that all operations had ceased 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 remained untouched by the unrest. Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 percent of Iraqi state revenues.
Officials announced a citywide curfew would be in place after 3 p.m. local time, but cancelled it just as it was due to come into force.
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 hospitalized from drinking it.
A Health Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Baghdad that 6,280 people had been recently hospitalized with diarrhea due to the oversalinated water.
The protesters began blocking the entrance to Umm Qasr port, which lies about 60 kilometers from Basra, Wednesday night.
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.At a news conference Thursday, Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite preacher 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 convened an emergency cabinet meeting 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. Wednesday night’s death brought the total number of protesters killed during clashes since Monday to seven, with dozens more wounded. Tens of security forces members had also been wounded 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. “The dead were wounded either in the head or the chest,” Tamimi said.