The two leading groups in Iraq’s parliament have demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over the unrest in the southern city of Basra, where a recent escalation in violence during protests over public services has seen at least 12 deaths, the Iranian consulate torched and its airport hit by rockets.
At an emergency session of parliament on Saturday, the Sairoon coalition headed by populist Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, which won the most seats in Iraq’s May elections, called for al-Abadi’s government to step down.
“We demand the government apologise to the people and resign immediately,” al-Sadr’s spokesman, said Hassan al-Aqouli, said.
Ahmed al-Assadi, spokesperson for the second-largest Fateh Alliance list, also denounced “the government’s failure to resolve the crisis in Basra”.
Defending his government, al-Abadi described the weeks-long unrest in Basra over poor services and lack of jobs as “political sabotage” and charged that the crisis was being exploited for political ends.
His government has announced the allocation of an unspecified amount of extra funds for Basra, although demonstrators say that billions of dollars in emergency funding pledged in July has failed to materialise.
In a session attended by 172 deputies in the 329-seat house, al-Abadi also traded barbs with Asaad al-Eidani, the governor of Basra who is also the speaker of parliament.
Basra on edge
Anger flared after the hospitalisation of 30,000 people who had drunk polluted water. Residents in the oil-rich region have for weeks complained of water and electricity shortages, corruption among officials and unemployment.
Hours before parliament met, four rockets fired by unidentified assailants struck inside the perimeter of Basra airport, security sources said.
Staff at the airport, which is located near the US consulate in Basra, said flights were not affected.
The attack came after a day of rage in the southern city where hundreds of protesters stormed the fortified Iranian consulate, causing no casualties but sparking condemnation.
Al-Abadi said he had instructed security forces to “act decisively against the acts of vandalism that accompanied the demonstrations”.
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command, which includes the army and police, vowed a “severe” response with “exceptional security measures”, including a ban on protests and group travel.
The foreign ministry called the attack on the consulate “an unacceptable act undermining the interests of Iraq and its international relations”.
Reporting from Baghdad, Al Jazeera’s Rob Matheson said that despite the measures taken by al-Abadi, Basra could be facing another upsurge of violence tonight and in coming days.
“Although the PM has authorized security services to head to Basra to try and contain the violence, there is a real fear that if the security forces get involved, that will exacerbate things even further and may also encourage it to spread across other parts of Iraq as well.”
He added that while tribal elders had previously helped suppress this kind of violence before, protesters are as angry at the tribal leaders as they are with the government and security forces.
“There is a significant worry that if nothing tangible appears for the people within the next few days, this could spiral out of control,” said Matheson.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi denounced the “savage attack” on its consulate, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.
A spokesman for the consulate said that all diplomats and staff had been evacuated from the building before the protesters attacked and that nobody was hurt.
Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, said the consulate was “totally demolished” and charged that “foreign agents close to the US, Zionists and some Arab countries are trying to sabotage Iran-Iraq relations”, Iran’s ILNA news agency reported.
Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi said that leaders in Tehran were taking this situation very seriously.
“The foreign ministry spokesman pointed out that this was part of an attempt to drive a wedge between friendly relations of the governments of Iran and Iraq. He said that although there may have been events outside of the governments’ control, it was a failure of the Iraqi government that was unable to use its police forces to protect the Iranian mission.
“The parliamentary commission on foreign policy and national security has said it will investigate the events that led to the attack on the mission,” said Basravi.
The wave of protests first broke out in Basra in July before spreading to other parts of the country, with demonstrators condemning corruption among Iraqi officials and demanding jobs.
Since then at least 27 people have been killed.
“We’re thirsty, we’re hungry, we are sick and abandoned,” protester Ali Hussein told AFP on Friday in Basra after another night of violence.
“Demonstrating is a sacred duty and all honest people ought to join.”
The anger on Basra’s streets was “in response to the government’s intentional policy of neglect”, the head of the region’s human rights council, Mehdi al-Tamimi, said.
Iraq has been struggling to rebuild its infrastructure and economy after decades of bloody conflicts, including an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, the US-led invasion of 2003 and the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group which was declared to be over at the end of 2017.
In August, the oil ministry announced that crude exports for August had hit their highest monthly figure this year, with nearly 112 million barrels of oil bringing $7.7bn to state coffers.
Iraq, however, suffers from persistent corruption and many Iraqis complain that the country’s oil wealth is unfairly distributed.
Parliament said MPs would hear speeches by al-Abadi and key ministers and discuss the water contamination crisis, the latest breakdown in public services to spark public anger.
The meeting was demanded by al-Sadr, who has called on politicians to present “radical and immediate” solutions at Saturday’s session or step down.
Two months ago, al-Abadi pledged a multibillion-dollar emergency plan to revive infrastructure and services in southern Iraq, one of the country’s most marginalised regions.
The premier is trying to hold on to his post in the next government and has formed an alliance with al-Sadr, a former militia chief who has called for Iraq to have greater political independence from both neighbouring Iran and the United States.