Iraq PM under pressure to quit as deadly unrest rocks Basra

Despite the oil wealth, the Iraqi city of Basra has long suffered from government neglect, soaring unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 10:58am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 9:05pm

A sense of calm returned to Iraq’s southern city of Basra on Sunday after a week of violent protests over unemployment and poor public services that left at least 15 people dead and threatened stability in the oil-rich region.

Troops sent from Baghdad have reinforced police, and government offices and markets reopened after a quiet night. Municipality workers were out in force cleaning up the streets and carting away debris from the clashes.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been facing calls to resign, as his alliance with a populist cleric who won elections in May crumbled over the unrest.

“We demand the government apologise to the people and resign immediately,” said Hassan al-Aqouli, spokesman for the list of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr that won the most seats in the election.

The announcement dealt a severe blow to Abadi’s hopes of holding onto his post through a bloc – described as the biggest in parliament – unveiled just days earlier.

Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesman for the second-largest list in parliament, the Conquest Alliance, condemned “the government’s failure to resolve the crisis in Basra”.

The Conquest Alliance of pro-Iranian former paramilitary fighters was “on the same wavelength” as Sadr’s Marching Towards Reform list and they would work together to form a new government, Assadi said.

Abadi, whose grouping came third in the May polls, defended his record in parliament, describing the unrest as “political sabotage” and saying the crisis over public services was being exploited for political ends.

His government has announced extra funds for Basra, although demonstrators say billions of dollars in emergency funding pledged in July never arrived.

Calm appeared to have returned to the streets of Basra late on Saturday, leading authorities to lift a curfew.

Basra had been rocked by protests since Tuesday, with demonstrators setting fire to government buildings, the Iranian consulate and offices of pro-Tehran militias and political parties.

The anger flared when 30,000 people became sick after drinking polluted water. In an oil-rich region where residents have for weeks complained of water and electricity shortages, corruption among officials and unemployment.

The attack came after a day of rage in the southern city where hundreds of protesters stormed the fortified Iranian consulate, causing no casualties but sparking condemnation.

Abadi said he had instructed security forces to “act decisively against the acts of vandalism that accompanied the demonstrations”.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and police, vowed a “severe” response with “exceptional security measures”, including a ban on protests and group travel.

Iraq has been struggling to rebuild its infrastructure and economy after decades of bloody conflicts, including an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the US-led invasion of 2003 and the battle against Islamic State.

In August, the oil ministry announced that crude exports for August had hit their highest monthly figure this year, with nearly 112 million barrels of oil bringing US$7.7 billion to state coffers.

Iraq, however, suffers from persistent corruption and many Iraqis complain that the oil wealth hasn’t been fairly distributed. Some hinted that the last person to do anything for them was Saddam Hussein.

“We do not want Basra to be seen as a huge barrel of oil” to be exploited, said Walid al-Ansari, who heads an association that looks after the families of people killed in the protests. “It’s been 15 years since they did anything for the people.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press