BAGHDAD: Iran-backed armed factions in Iraq announced their support on Thursday for demonstrations sweeping the country’s main oil hub.
Protesters in Basra are targeting local and international oil companies, and warn they will “paralyze” the industry unless their demands for jobs and improved basic services are met.
Pro-Iranian paramilitary troops, including Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, one of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, and its offshoots Al-Nujabaa, Kataib Sayyad Al-Shuhaddaa and Saraya Al-Kharassani all said separately they were backing the protesters.
Iran would benefit from any disruption to the oil sector in Basra as it seeks to stave off US sanctions against its own oil exports, analysts and oil experts told Arab News.
The Shiite forces could provide logistical support for the protests, which have blocked roads and led to clashes with police.
Early on Thursday, thousands of protesters tried to storm the entrances of oil company headquarters in northern Basra.
Iraqi security forces opened fire to disperse the demonstrators, who responded by hurling stones.
Six people, including two policemen, were wounded in the exchanges and temporary buildings belonging to the Russian energy giant Lukoil Company were set on fire. Security sources said that foreign employees of the company were evacuated by helicopter.
Iran wields considerable influence in Iraq, particularly in the predominantly Shiite south, where it supports a network of armed factions with funding and weapons.
Gaining influence over the oil and gas sector in Iraq is vital for Iran as it seeks to head off US attempts to economically suffocate Tehran, analysts said.
In May, US President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The US has ordered all countries to stop buying Iranian oil by November or face sanctions themselves.
Disrupting the export of Iraqi oil would “send a message to the US that the Iraqi oil industry and its output are not out of (Iran’s) reach,” an Iraqi analyst based in Washington told Arab News.
“What is happening in Basra is part of the conflict between the US and Iran. It may be a preemptive step from Iran to affect or halt Iraqi oil exports.
“Iran has sent two messages through these demonstrations. The first is to tell the US that the Iraqi oil sector can be reached by its hands in the region.
“The second was to tell the international community that Iraqi oil is not the appropriate alternative to compensate for a shortfall created by the absence of Iranian oil.”
Iraqi officials told Arab News that oil exports have not been affected by the protests.
The situation in Basra follows a threat by Iranian officials earlier this month to block global oil supplies being shipped through the Straits of Hormuz from the Arabian Gulf.
The US president asked Saudi Arabia last week to increase its oil production to compensate for the shortfall in the global market and ensure the stability of oil prices, but the Kingdom alone will not be able to continue this in the long term and must be backed by another source.
“Iraqi oil is the solution,” an Iraqi analyst told Arab News. “The goal (behind the demonstrations) is to create security problems and tell the world that (Iraqi oil) source is not secure.”
Protests erupted on Sunday over a lack of basic services, including drinking water and electricity, but quickly turned against the oil companies with demonstrators demanding jobs. One protester was killed and three wounded by security forces on the first day.
The tribe of the fatally injured protester demanded the killer and their commander be handed over for punishment, but the Iraqi government refused to respond.
On Wednesday, 13 tribes announced their support for the demands of Bani Mansour, the victim’s tribe.
Officials have attempted to defuse the crisis in Basra by sending a ministerial committee, headed by Jabbar Luaibi, the oil minister.
The committee on Thursday offered to create 10,000 jobs in the oil and gas sector for the people of the region.