Iraqis Turn Against Iranian Hegemony

Protesters in Basra turn on Iran, torch consulate

BASRA/IRBIL, Iraq: Protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Iraq’s southern city of Basra Friday, turning their wrath on Iraq’s powerful neighbor after five days of deadly demonstrations in which government buildings have been ransacked and torched.

Demonstrators broke in and began damaging the offices, shouting condemnation of what many Iraqis perceive as Iran’s sway over Iraq’s political parties. They also set a fire inside the consulate. Security sources said the building was empty when the crowd burst in.

Russian oil company Lukoil said protesters entered its water treatment facility linked to the West Qurna 2 field and held two employees.

Local security and health sources said one protester had died and 11 were wounded Friday.

Iraqi security officials later announced a citywide curfew just before 9 p.m. local time, a statement from Basra Operations Command said. “Security forces will arrest anyone present in the street,” the statement said. The storming came hours after Iraq’s most revered Shiite preacher called for a political shakeup in Baghdad and a halt to violence against the protesters. Ayatollah Ali Sistani placed blame for the unrest with political leaders and said a new government should be formed, “different from its predecessors.”

At least 11 protesters have died, mostly in clashes with the security forces, since Monday in Basra, a city of 2 million people. Residents say they have been driven to the streets by corruption and misrule that allowed infrastructure to collapse, leaving no power or safe drinking water in the heat of summer.

The unrest could have deeper implications for a country that imports most of its food. Since Thursday protesters have shut Iraq’s only major sea port at Umm Qasr, 60 kilometers south of Basra. It remained shut Friday, local officials and security sources said, although oil exports, carried out from offshore platforms, have not been affected. Smaller protests in solidarity with Basra took place in several other cities including Karbala and Baghdad.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s national security council met Friday and said it was investigating casualties at the protests. Abadi, under pressure to promise more money to fix Basra’s public services, said funds that had previously been allocated would be released.

More than 2,000 people, including many women, gathered in Basra Friday afternoon, to mourn a protester who died from burns during the torching of the provincial government headquarters overnight.

The unrest has thrust Iraq into a major new crisis at a time when politicians still have yet to agree a new government after an inconclusive election in May. Parliament’s interim leader summoned lawmakers to an emergency session Saturday to discuss the unrest.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shiite preacher whose electoral bloc came first in May’s election, said on Twitter that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi must release more funds for Basra. Sadr, the former leader of an anti-American Shiite sectarian militia who has reinvented himself as an anti-corruption campaigner, has allied himself with Abadi.

Their alliance is competing to form a government against a rival bloc backed by Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki and the leader of an Iran-backed Shiite armed group, Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri called on Abadi to resign over the crisis Friday.

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