Operations were at a near standstill at Iraq‘s Umm Qasr commodities port near Basra on Wednesday after protesters blocked its entrance.
Umm Qasr receives imports of grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments that feed a country largely dependent on imported food.
The port operated at only about 20 percent of its normal level after demonstrators blocked its entrance, port officials said.
“Protesters have blocked the main entrance to the port. Trucks that carry goods can’t enter or leave the facility,” said one official.
Port authorities said they are holding talks with protesters to persuade them to allow trucks and workers to enter and leave so it can resume normal operations.
Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets this week in a second wave of protests against a government and political elite they say is corrupt and out of touch.
The demonstrators have paid a severe price. The death toll since the unrest started on October 1 is at least 250.
Further disruption to port operations could cause financial damage to the country and impact the inflow of commodities, a port statement said.
“Halting the entry of commodities will cause a huge increase in the price of goods and create negative results,” it added.
Meanwhile, Iraqi tribal leaders issued a 48-hour ultimatum to the government to release protesters held by security forces in southern Basra province.
“Tribal chieftains in Basra have given 48 hours to the government to release all detained protesters,” tribal leader Ahmad al-Bazouni said in a statement on Wednesday.
“The Basra tribal leaders support the protesters’ legitimate demands,” al-Bazouni said, adding the tribes would join the demonstrators “if our demands were not met”.
The ongoing turmoil has shattered the nearly two years of relative stability enjoyed in Iraq following the defeat of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
Many demonstrators say the country’s vast oil wealth has not adequately trickled down to its citizens, nearly three-fifths of whom live on less than $6 a day, World Bank figures show.
Millions of Iraqis lack access to adequate healthcare, education, clean water and electricity. Much of the country’s infrastructure is in tatters.
Iran – which now wields significant influence in neighbouring Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003 – accused the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel of stoking unrest in Iraq and Lebanon, and called for calm in both countries.
“Our advice has always been to call for peace and [stopping] interference by foreign forces in these countries,” President Hassan Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vaezi, was quoted as saying by state media.