Anti-govt protesters block key Iraqi port

An Iraqi demonstrator during an anti-government protest on Monday. Protesters regained control of a bridge leading into the capital’s Green Zone on Sunday. (Reuters)
Updated 19 November 2019

Anti-govt protesters block key Iraqi port

  • At least 315 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq in early October

BASRA: Protesters blocked entry to Iraq’s main commodities port again on Monday while schools and government offices in many southern cities were shut in response to calls for a general strike.

At least 315 people have been killed since the start of mass unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq in early October, the largest demonstrations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Protesters are demanding the overthrow of a political class seen as corrupt and beholden to foreign interests. Unsatisfied by government reform promises they see as meagre, many have turned to civil disobedience tactics.

Hundreds on Monday blocked the entrance to the Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra, preventing employees and tankers from entering and bringing operations down by 50 percent, two port sources said.

If the blockage goes on, operations will come to a complete halt, the sources said. The port was previously blocked from Oct. 29 to Nov. 9 with a brief resumption of operations between Nov. 7-9.

“Our protests in Umm Qasr are in solidarity with our brothers in Tahrir Square and other provinces,” said protester Karim Jawad, referring to the main protest site in Baghdad.

Umm Qasr is Iraq’s main Gulf port. It receives imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments that feed a country largely dependent on imported food.

The blockage cost the country more than $6 billion during just the first week of the closure, a government spokesman said at the time.

In the southern cities of Hilla, Diwaniya, and the Shiite holy city of Karbala, most schools and government offices were closed after the teachers union declared a strike and others followed suit. There were partial closures in the city of Najaf and some Baghdad schools were also closed.

In Karbala, most shops and markets were closed in response to a call from the local trade chamber. In Hilla and Diwaniya, the striking workers joined the main protest camps in the city centers.

In the southern city of Nassiriya, all schools and government offices were closed but hospitals remained open. One protester died from wounds sustained there on Friday

In Baghdad, labor unions marched to central Tahrir Square to join thousands of protesters who have been camped out there since Oct. 24.

Protesters regained control of a third bridge leading into the capital’s Green Zone on Sunday, part of a weeks-long attempt to disrupt traffic and reach the fortified complex which houses government buildings and foreign missions.

The unrest has shattered the relative calm that followed the defeat of Daesh in 2017. 


Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

Updated 9 sec ago

Rockets hit Iraq base hosting US troops, stoking concerns

  • Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah was responsible
  • More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month

BAGHDAD: Two rockets hit the Al-Balad air base, north of Baghdad, late Thursday, Iraqi security forces said, the latest in a flurry of attacks on bases hosting US troops that has alarmed US officials.
It came as Washington considers deploying between 5,000 and 7,000 fresh troops to the Middle East to counter its arch-foe Iran, a US official told AFP.
Thursday’s attack with Katyusha rockets did not cause any casualties or material damage but “came close,” a US official told AFP.
Washington has been concerned by a recent spate of attacks on Iraqi bases where some 5,200 US troops are deployed to help Iraqi forces ensure militants do not regroup.
The attacks, targeting either bases or the US embassy in Baghdad, have averaged more than one per week over the past six weeks.
“There is a spike in rocket attacks,” a second US official said, adding that although they had caused no US casualties and little damage, they were increasingly worrying.
Five rockets hit Al-Asad airbase on December 3, just four days after Vice President Mike Pence visited troops there.
Security sources said they believed Kataib Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite faction close to Tehran and blacklisted by Washington, was responsible.
More than a dozen rockets hit the Qayyarah airbase in northern Iraq last month, one of the largest attacks in recent months to hit an area where US troops are based.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attacks and Washington has not blamed any particular faction.
But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has blamed similar attacks on Iran-aligned groups.
Iran holds vast sway in Iraq, especially among the more hard-line elements of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force largely made up of Shiite militias backed by Tehran.
Asked whether the repeated rocket attacks made the Hashed a bigger threat to US troops than the Daesh group, the official agreed.
“It is. The question is, when is someone going to call BS?” he said.
Multiple US diplomatic and military sources have told AFP of their growing frustration with such attacks.
They say they are relying on their Iraqi partners to play a “de-conflicting” role between them and the Hashed to prevent any clashes.
That is a complicated task, as the Hashed has been ordered to integrate with the regular security forces but many of its fighters continue to operate with some independence.
“We all recognize the danger out here. Sometimes our Iraqi partners say, well what can I do?” the official said.
Tensions between Iran and the United States have soared since the Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Tehran last year and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Baghdad — which is close to both countries and whose many security forces have been trained by either the US or Iran — is worried about being caught in the middle.