BASRA: Protesters set fire to the Iranian Consulate in Basra on Friday, after a week of violent protests during which at least nine people were killed.
The building was the latest to be attacked during demonstrations in Iraq’s main oil hub after a summer of unrest fueled by anger at substandard basic services, corruption and a lack of jobs.
The demonstrations escalated this week, stoked by politicians attempting to influence a political standoff in Baghdad between the pro and anti-Iranian blocs in Parliament.
Friday had been mostly calm until evening approached, when protesters again went on the rampage. The Iranian Consulate in the south-east of the city was targeted and the outer walls set on fire. It not immediately clear how badly it was damaged or whether protesters had made it inside, although some reports said the building had been stormed.
The previous night, protesters set fire to the offices of dozens of political factions and their associated television stations. The demonstrators threatened to burn more if the leaders of the parties tried to intervene in the protests or hijack them for their own ends, local advocates and officials said.
The protests, which began in June, initially were prompted by anger over inadequate electricity supplies but this week they have been focused on the lack of clean water.
They turned violent when security forces fired live bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters who were attempting to break into a local government building in central Basra, attacking troops outside with Molotov cocktails. Two demonstrators were seriously wounded, and one of them died hours later.
On Tuesday evening, the demonstrations were even more violent, as one of the protesters attacked a group of Iraqi security forces with a hand grenade, killing one officer and wounding others. A separate group of demonstrators attacked troops with Molotov cocktails. In both attacks, the troops responded by firing live bullets and tear gas.
By the end of the night, several government buildings were on fire, and at least nine protesters had been shot dead. In addition, 93 people were wounded, including dozens of members of the security services, medics and police, sources said.
There was less violence during Thursday evening’s protests after the federal authorities in Baghdad issued orders to all forces in Basra not to clash with the demonstrators as long as they were nowhere close to oil installations, according to local security officials.
The demonstrators changed their targets from local-government buildings to the headquarters of political parties and their media wings. More than 20 offices and local TV stations were attacked, including the headquarters of some of the most prominent Shiite armed factions, including Badr organization and Assaib Ahl Al-Haq.
“We burned these headquarters to tell them that we can do it. Burning their headquarters is just the beginning,” said one of the organizers of the demonstrations.
“By burning their offices, we just sent them a message saying that the security forces and the governmental buildings are not our target — you (the political parties) are our target.”
Basra contains Iraq’s biggest oil fields and the revenues from its crude exports represent the backbone of the Iraqi economy. Destabilizing the security of the city is in the interest of many regional and local parties. The events there this week coincide with a conflict in Baghdad as Iraqi political forces loyal to Iran and those loyal to the United States compete to gain more influence in the negotiations to form the next government.
Clerics in Najaf, envoys and international organizations in Iraq have called for calm and for the security forces to avoid using excessive force against demonstrators.
Muqtada Al-Sadr, one of the most influential Shiite clerics, on Thursday called on outgoing Prime Minister Haider Abadi to accelerate the disbursement of funds required to finance water and electricity projects in Basra, and address the demands of the people of the province.
Also on Friday, demonstrators returned to stage a sit-in protest in Abdul Karim Qasim square in central Basra. Groups of them also began to clear nearby streets of the debris from the previous days’ protests. Videos circulated by activists on Friday showed hundreds of young people collecting waste from the streets in large, yellow containers, while others played music or held small banners with the words: “This is the ethics of the people of Basra.”
“We have decided to stop for a while to give the local and central governments a chance to respond to our demands,” said Kadhim Al-Sahlani, a local activist in Basra.
“For now, we will continue our sit-in until further notice, but if the troops attack us again or something happens, we will deal with the developments one by one.”