BASRA: 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.
Southern Iraq, heartland of the country's Shi'ite majority, 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 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.
Officials announced a citywide curfew would be in place after 3 pm local time, but cancelled it just as it was due to come into force.
Iraqi protesters also stormed and set fire to a provincial government building in the southern city of Basra on Thursday.
Later on Thursday, protesters in Basra 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.
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.
The protesters began blocking the entrance to Umm Qasr port, which lies about 60 km (40 miles) from Basra, on Wednesday. They also blocked the highway from Basra to Baghdad and set fire to the main provincial government building where they had been demonstrating for a third 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.
Leading political figures, embroiled in government formation negotiations in Baghdad, have scrambled to respond to the intensifying crisis, condemning rivals for inaction.
Incumbent Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss the unrest and ordered the Interior Ministry to conduct an immediate investigation into the protest.
At a news conference on Thursday, Moqtada Al-Sadr, a populist Shiite 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 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.