Baghdad: Iraq’s popular Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr has called for an urgent parliamentary session to discuss the situation in the southern city of Basra, where protests against poor public services and joblessness have turned violent.
In a televised speech on Thursday, Al Sadr says the prime minister and other officials should either attend the session or resign. The populist 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.
Residents of Basra and other cities in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland have been protesting since July. Clashes erupted earlier this week, leaving several civilians and police dead. Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence.
Iraq’s main seaport closed down on Thursday following violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Basra in which one demonstrator died and 25 more were injured the previous night.
Port employees said that all operations had ceased on Thursday morning at Umm Qasr port as the entrance was still blocked off and trucks and staff were unable to get in or out of the complex.
Residents in Basra, a city of more than two 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.
Overnight, protesters blocked the entrance to the nearby Umm Qasr port, the main lifeline for grain and other commodity imports that feed the country.
They blocked the highway from Basra to Baghdad and set fire to the main provincial government building where they had been demonstrating for a third night.
Earlier on Wednesday, the third day of clashes, security forces sprayed tear gas and fired into the air to try to disperse demonstrators. According to health sources, the dead protester was struck in the head by a smoke grenade during the clashes.
The deaths of five protesters in clashes with security forces on Tuesday added to the fury. Security and health sources said 22 members of the security forces had been injured in Tuesday’s violence, some by a hand grenade.