By Aref Mohammed and Raya Jalabi
BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – 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.
Several hundred protesters took to Basra’s streets again on Thursday afternoon. As they demonstrated, the provincial government headquarters – the centre of protests in recent days – was engulfed in flames, local police and army sources said.
However, no protesters were near the building when the fire broke out, the sources said, adding that the sound of a blast had been heard beforehand.
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.
Oil exports, which are handled at offshore terminals, remained untouched by the unrest. Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 percent of Iraqi state revenues.
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. A senior security source told Reuters that a heavy deployment of security forces – including members of the rapid response team – would be on patrol in Basra to enforce the curfew and impose calm.
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 night. They also blocked the highway from Basra to Baghdad and set fire to a provincial government building.
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.
At a news conference on Thursday, Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shi’ite 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 incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-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.
Abadi convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss the unrest. He ordered the Interior Ministry to conduct an immediate investigation into the protests and to instruct security forces not to use live ammunition.
Parliament convened for the first time on Monday, but failed to elect a speaker as mandated, delaying its next meeting to Sept. 15.
Wednesday night’s death brought the total number of protesters killed during clashes since Monday to seven, with dozens more injured. Tens of security forces members had also been injured in the violence, some by a hand grenade, local health and security officials said.
The Basra head of Iraq’s Commission for Human Rights, Mahdi al-Tamimi, called for an immediate investigation into the protesters’ deaths, adding that most of the victims had been shot.
The protester who died on Wednesday was struck on the head by a smoke grenade during the clashes, he said.
“The dead were wounded either in the head or the chest,” Tamimi said. “Even among the wounded, most of the injuries were above the waist.”
(Reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Raya Jalabi in Erbil; writing by Raya Jalabi; editing by Jason Neely and David Stamp)