Iraq army puts Basra on lock-down amid protest turmoil

Iraq army puts Basra on lock-down amid protest turmoil
Populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called for Iraqi officials to address the violence in Basra or resign, after another protester was killed by government forces on Wednesday.
3 min read
06 September, 2018
The southern city has been rocked with protests [AFP]

Iraq's leading political figure and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on Thursday for an urgent parliamentary session to address the ongoing turbulence in the southern city of Basra, where protests against poor public services and joblessness have turned violent.

The Iraqi police have imposed a blanket curfew on the city in an attempt to quell the unrest after protestors set fire to a government building and closed down the city's port.

One person was killed and 25 injured, some seriously, on Wednesday evening when government forces opened fire on protesters. The incident follows the fatal shooting of six other demonstrators during clashes with government forces on Tuesday.

Read more: Iraq's protests are about more than corrupt elites

In a televised speech on Thursday, Sadr said the prime minister and other officials should either attend the session or resign.

The Shia cleric's supporters won the most seats in national elections held earlier this year, but Iraq's feuding factions have yet to form a new government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence.

Abadi has said he had ordered "no real bullets... to be fired, in the direction of protesters or in the air".

Gunshots and tear gas were fired by security personnel directly at demonstrators, who had gathered in their thousands outside the regional government headquarters on Wednesday, according to an AFP reporter.

The measures failed to disperse protesters, who responded by hurling Molotov cocktails and letting off fireworks at the security forces.

Security forces later stopped firing in the direction of protesters and instead fired shots in the air and used tear gas.

"One demonstrator was killed and 25 others wounded, including some seriously," said Mehdi al-Tamimi, head of the government's human rights council in Basra province.

Medical sources confirmed the death of a young man, according to AFP.

Reinforcements had been sent to Basra and concrete blocks erected to protect the government building, which for demonstrators has become a symbol of state corruption and neglect.

Basra and the surrounding province have been the focus of angry anti-government demonstrations that have rocked Iraq since early July.

Residents are particularly angry over pollution of the local water supply, which has put 20,000 people in hospital.

The United Nations envoy to Iraq had called for "calm" in Basra ahead of Wednesday's clashes and urged the authorities "to avoid using disproportionate, lethal force against the demonstrators".

The UN's Jan Kubis also asked the government to "investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the outbreak of violence" and "do its utmost to respond to the people's rightful demands of clean water and electricity supplies".

'No real bullets'

In his weekly press conference in Baghdad on Tuesday, Prime Abadi said he had ordered "no real bullets... to be fired, in the direction of protesters or in the air".

Sadr said in a tweet ahead of the latest clashes that "vandals infiltrated" the protests.

Iraq is currently in a state of political limbo.

Sadr's political bloc won the largest number of seats in national elections held in May, and he is trying to form a new government with Abadi.

The authorities have pledged to take measures to put an end to the health crisis that has ravaged the oil-rich province of Basra.

Abadi announced overnight that he had met lawmakers from Basra, who are in Baghdad for the first parliamentary session since the elections.

He again indicated that water pollution would be addressed, without specifying any measures.

In July, the government announced a multi-billion dollar emergency plan for southern Iraq, to revive infrastructure and services.

But protesters are wary of promises made by the outgoing government, as negotiations drag on over the formation of the next administration.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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