Basra people go against Iran, torch buildings



BASRA: 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 neighbouring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq’s political affairs for their misery and calling for radical change.

“We have no work, no money. Something needs to change,” said 18-year-old Mustafa Diaa, a currently jobless construction worker from Basra’s Tannouma district who said he has been taking part in the protests daily.

Diaa took part in burning the provincial government building two days earlier and came back Saturday to look at it again. He said he does not regret it and would do so again until something gives.

“They should change the government, provide job opportunities and fix the water. I’m not scared,” he said.

The airport official said it was not clear who was behind the Saturday morning attack on Basra airport, which also houses the US 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 held 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. A banner on one side of the building read in Arabic: “No to the militias, your militias under our feet.”