BASRA: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi tried to ease tensions in the country’s oil-rich south with a visit Monday to Basra, rocked by deadly protests over alleged corruption and government neglect.
After 12 demonstrators were killed and many of Basra’s institutions torched, calm returned to the city late Saturday as Abadi’s rivals in Baghdad said they wanted to form Iraq’s next government without him.
For five days last week protesters had flooded the streets, clashing with security forces and torching the provincial headquarters, the Iranian consulate and the offices of armed groups.
Organisers have attempted to dissociate themselves from the violence and called for a halt in demonstrations.
On Monday, Abadi met with officials in Basra who have accused Baghdad of neglecting the southern province and failing to redistribute oil wealth.
His visit came just 48 hours after he came under fire at an emergency meeting of parliament, where he faced calls to resign as his alliance with a populist cleric crumbled over the deadly unrest.
The embattled premier, who has done his best to avoid the press over the past week, kept his statements in Basra to a minimum.
“Attacking a consulate or diplomatic post is unacceptable,” said Abadi, according to state broadcaster Al-Iraqiya.
Protesters on Friday stormed Iran’s fortified consulate, burning documents and equipment left behind by fleeing employees, none of whom were hurt, according to a consular spokesman.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi denounced the incident as a “savage attack”, according to Iranian news agency Fars.
Tehran is a key power broker in neighbouring Iraq and many of the militias and political parties whose offices were torched in last week’s unrest are known to be close to the Islamic republic.
Basra has been at the epicentre of protests that broke out in July in the southern province before spreading to other parts of the country, as demonstrators demanded jobs and condemned corruption among Iraqi officials.
Anger in Basra flared on Tuesday over a growing health crisis, after more than 30,000 people were hospitalised by pollution in the city’s water supply.
Twelve protesters have been killed in the ensuing clashes, with rights groups accusing security forces of using excessive force.
Officials have blamed the deaths and violence on “vandals” who infiltrated the demonstrators.
“There can be no public services without security,” Abadi said Monday during his visit, according to state TV.
But the PM has struggled to defuse the anger.
In July, authorities had already pledged a multi-billion dollar emergency plan to revive infrastructure and services in southern Iraq following the first wave of protests.
On Saturday, his government announced it would allocate an unspecified amount of extra funds for Basra.
But demonstrators were unimpressed, saying the billions of dollars pledged in July have failed to materialise.
After the emergency parliament meeting on Saturday, Abadi suffered his most severe political blow yet.
His one-time ally, populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, distanced himself from the premier, while a rival alliance of pro-Iranian former paramilitary fighters said it would work with Sadr to form a new government without Abadi.
The announcement endangered Abadi’s hopes of holding onto his post through a bloc — described as the biggest in parliament — unveiled just days earlier with Sadr and more than a dozen other groups.
Experts say the new formation could bring an end to the paralysis in parliament since May elections.
Lawmakers are set to elect a new speaker of the house on Saturday, after failing to do so last week, though sources in parliament have said the date may be brought forward.