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Anti-Iran slogans, torched buildings in Iraq's Basra

September 8, 2018
Associated Press

BASRA, Iraq (AP) — Assailants fired three Katyusha rockets at Iraq's Basra airport Saturday, an airport official said, after a chaotic and violent night that saw hundreds of protesters setting ablaze the Iranian consulate in the city, attacking offices belonging to Iranian-backed militias and blocking roads.

The city of Basra, home to some of the largest oil fields in Iraq, has been the epicenter of angry protests over decades of government neglect, poor services and corruption. The demonstrations are the most serious to shake the oil-rich southern Shiite area in years, demanding an end to endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and crumbling infrastructure.

This week, they turned their rage on neighboring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq's political affairs for their misery.

The official said it was not clear who was behind the Saturday morning attack on Basra airport, which also houses the U.S. consulate. He said the attack occurred at about 8 a.m. local time and did not cause casualties or disrupt flights in or out of the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Iraq's parliament was holding an emergency session Saturday to discuss the unrest in Basra.

Hours earlier, protesters shouting anti-Iranian slogans including "Iran, out, out!" stormed the Iranian consulate and set a fire inside. They also burned an Iranian flag and trampled over a portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the attack, which he said caused significant damage to the building. He called for maximum punishment for the assailants.

The State Department criticized the attack, without explicitly mentioning Iran. "The United States condemns violence against diplomats, including that which occurred today in Basra," it said in a statement.

Elsewhere in the city, protesters tried to attack the headquarters of the Iran-backed Assaib Ahl Al-Haq Shiite militia and the guards stationed there opened fire. Angry protesters marched to the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed, and tried to breach it. At least three cars driven by the troops ploughed into the protesters, killing one and wounding four others, according to a health official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

On Saturday, an Associated Press reporter touring the city observed that traffic was normal and shops were open. Police and security forces were conspicuously absent. The two-story consulate was partially burned. An Iraqi flag was placed at the entrance to the consulate after the Iranian one was snatched away and set ablaze at night. Sprayed in red on the concrete wall of the consulate were the words: "Down with Iran, down with the militias, the revolution will continue."

A lone, unarmed policeman sat on a chair at the entrance, underneath the slogan.

The provincial government building in the center of Basra was completely torched and several burned cars were seen in the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed.

At least 12 protesters have died in clashes with security forces since Monday, including three who were shot dead by security forces on Thursday night. The violence has forced the closure of the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf.

A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, wouldn't say when operations will resume.

Basra, once known as the "Venice of the East" because of its freshwater canals, has been hit by an acute water crisis and crippling electricity shortages this summer amid surging Iraq temperatures. Adding to the outrage is a water pollution crisis and salt water seeping into tap waters that is making residents sick. Two hospital officials told the AP that around 35,000 residents have been hospitalized as a result of water pollution in the past month.

The water is reportedly so polluted it cannot even be used for cooking or washing. The protests began in June, then tapered off but restarted Monday following a surge in water poisoning cases.

Iraq's government has scrambled to meet the growing demands for public services and jobs, but has been hindered by years of endemic corruption and a financial crisis fueled by diminished oil revenues and the costly war against the Islamic State group.

Basra streets are filled with pictures of young men from the Iran-backed Shiite militias who were killed fighting against the Islamic State group in the past few years — a war that allowed powerful Iran-backed militias space to flourish and gain strength in Iraq.

Many residents of the predominantly Shiite city now accuse Iranian-backed political parties of interfering with Iraqi politics and hold them responsible for the Shiite militias based in their city, which they blame for mismanagement and profiteering at their expense.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence, which showed no sign of abating.

The unrest in the south comes amid a political crisis in Baghdad, adding to overall tensions in the country.

The newly elected parliament earlier this week held its first session since the national elections in May, but the session was adjourned amid disagreements as two blocs, both claiming to hold the most seats, vied for the right to form a new government.



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