Hundreds took to the streets of Iraq’s southern city Basra in a fourth day of violent protests, where residents, angry over neglect of collapsing infrastructure, set fire to political offices.
Ten demonstrators were killed in clashes with security forces and dozens injured since a wave of protests began on Monday. Security force members have also been injured, some by a hand grenade, health and security officials said.
Protesters targeted provincial government buildings, setting local government headquarters on fire and blocked main roads in the city centre.
A protester died on Thursday from burns sustained during the torching, health and security sources said.
People attacked the offices of the state-run Iraqiya TV and set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Dawa Party, the Supreme Islamic Council and the Badr Organisation, whose leaders are all vying to form Iraq’s ruling coalition. Two more protesters died during the attacks, local security and health sources said.
Protesters also set fire to the offices of a powerful Shi’ite militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and those of the Hikma Movement north of Basra as well as storming the house of the provincial council acting head.
The provincial government headquarters was engulfed in flames, local police and military sources said. No protesters were near the building when the fire broke out in, they said.
Security forces, including rapid response team members, were expected to be patrolling in high numbers. By nightfall they were few and far between in the city centre and were not interfering in protest activities.
Basra security officials announced a curfew to help quell protests. A citywide curfew was originally planned, but cancelled minutes before it was due to come into force.
An Iraqi security official said they were struggling to cope with the demonstrations. “We are still waiting for orders from the state’s highest authorities,” he said.
The port of Umm Qasr, the country’s main seaport and its principal lifeline for grain and other commodity imports, closed on Thursday. Port employees said all operations ceased after protesters blocked the entrance, 60 km from Basra, on Wednesday. Trucks and staff were unable to get in or out of the complex.
Oil exports, handled at offshore terminals, were untouched by the unrest. Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95% of Iraqi state revenues.
Southern Iraq, heartland of the Shi’ite majority, erupted in unrest in July as protesters expressed rage over collapsing infrastructure, power cuts and corruption.
Residents in Basra, a city of more than two million, say the water supply is become contaminated with salt.
A Health Ministry spokesman told a news conference in Baghdad 6,280 people were recently hospitalised with diarrhoea because of over-salinated water.
Public anger has grown while politicians struggle to form a government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in May. Residents of the south complain of decades of neglect in the region producing the bulk of Iraq’s oil wealth.
Leading political figures, embroiled in government formation negotiations in Baghdad, scrambled to respond to the crisis, condemning rivals for inaction.
Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shi’ite cleric whose electoral bloc came first in May’s election, called for an emergency televised session of parliament to discuss “radical” solutions to the crisis in Basra, a city “without water, electricity or dignity”.
Basra is a stronghold of Sadr, who recast himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and allied himself to incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The Prime Minister responded said he would be ready to attend a meeting of parliament with ministers and officials concerned to find a solution.
Abadi ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate the protests and instruct security forces not to use live ammunition.
Parliament convened on Monday, but failed to elect a speaker as mandated, delaying its next meeting to September 15.