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'Revolution' in southern Iraq escalates with 10 dead in one week

Protester in Basra tells MEE that Iraqis are 'governed by a group of criminals' and demonstrations will escalate until demands are met
Iraqi protesters run during a protest near a government office in Basra (Reuters)

Protesters in the Iraqi city of Basra have faced beatings, tear gas and live ammunition as they continue to demonstrate against water shortages, power cuts and corruption.

On Thursday, three protesters died and another 14 were wounded as hundreds of demonstrators torched the offices of a powerful Shia militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and those of the Hikma Movement about 100 km (60 miles) north of Basra.

Three mortar shells struck the green zone in Baghdad, which houses Iraqi authorities and the US Embassy, early on Friday morning, the head of security for the capital said. No casualties were reported.

The city of Basra, which is the artery of Iraq, has become infected and there will be an epidemic and deadly diseases in the next month

Edward Maki Shaker, demonstrator

One protester was killed and 25 were injured on Wednesday evening when demonstrators shut down Iraq's main sea port of Umm Qasr, on the border with Kuwait. As a largely landlocked country, Iraq is reliant on the port for grain and other imported commodities.

So far, 10 people have been killed in protests this week, bringing the death toll since the demonstrations began in July to 24.

Port employees told Reuters that the entrance to the port was still blocked off on Thursday and trucks and staff were unable to get in or out of the complex. Local army and police sources said provincial government headquarters in Basra were on fire.

Demonstrator Edward Maki Shaker told Middle East Eye that security forces beat him on the head on Wednesday while he protested in Basra and that he was "almost bursting from the pain".

He said he had been afraid to go to the hospital as "mercenaries" linked to political parties were waiting for them to arrive.

He alleged that members of the powerful Shia militias, including the Badr Organisation - also a political party - had been involved in suppressing the protests, which he said were a "revolution".

"We are governed by a group of criminals," he said.

A photo shows injuries on Edward Maki Shaker's back (supplied)

Basra is one of the main hubs of Iraqi oil production, but locals have long complained that they have not seen the benefits of the oil wealth. Much of the money has been siphoned off by politicians and other well-connected figures, while few Basra locals have secured jobs in oil production.

"Do you know that on one day in my city [Basra], more than 6,092 barrels of oil is exported from the port of Umm Qasr and the border crossings?" Shaker said.

"Where is the oil money? We have not seen it since 2003."

He also complained about polluted water, which has seen more than 17,000 hospitalised since 12 August. A health ministry spokesman told a news conference in Baghdad on Thursday that 6,280 people had also been recently hospitalised with diarrhoea as a result of over salinated water.

"The city of Basra, which is the artery of Iraq, has become infected and there will be an epidemic and deadly diseases in the next month," he said.

'You have been warned'

Demonstrations have taken place as politicians attempt to form a new government in Iraq, after the ratification of the results from the 12 May parliamentary elections.

Although leading politicians have promised to resolve the situation in southern Iraq and have stressed the urgent need to form a government and find a solution, the failure to elect a speaker earlier in the week -  following the first session on Monday - has seen parliament recessed until 15 September.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose Sairoun Alliance is the largest party in the parliament, said on Thursday that an emergency parliamentary meeting is needed to resolve the crisis in Basra.

He added that government officials and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi should either attend the session or resign.

"We will be uncompromising and you have been warned, be ready," said the cleric.

Abadi said in a statement, shortly after, that he was willing to attend.

The violent response to the protests has alarmed many observers both in and outside the country. Although Iraq has been a hotbed of violence since the 2003 invasion that overthrew longtime ruler Saddam Hussein, the clashes in Basra have largely been free of the sectarianism or armed militancy that has characterised most of the country's fighting.

Protesters begin to gather on Thursday as security services look on (supplied)

On Wednesday, the UN expressed “grave concern over the casualties during violent protests over the lack of critical public services in Basra," and called for the formation of a "new national, patriotic and pro-reform government".

Speaking to MEE on Tuesday, Riad Fahmi, General Secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party - part of the Sairoun Alliance - said he was worried that the right to free assembly was being threatened.

“They are using very harsh methods, even using bullets against demonstrators," he said.

"People are simply losing patience and now the conditions, particularly with regards to water and health, are becoming unbearable."

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On Wednesday, following the reports of protesters being killed, several solidarity protests were carried out in other parts of Iraq, including the southern city of Nasiriyah and the capital Baghdad.

Masoud Barzani, former President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq - also said in a statement on Wednesday that he was concerned by the violence and said he hoped the protesters' "rights will be respected and their demands met".

Prior to rejoining Thursday's protests, Shaker expressed his fears over the extent of the crackdown.

"Yes, we are all worried about what will happen today," Shaker said.

"I think because things get worse day after day."