Iraq Parliament to Hold Emergency Session after Basra Burns


Iraq's parliament on Friday called an emergency session after a curfew was imposed in the southern city of Basra following a fresh outbreak of deadly protests over poor public services and as shells were fired into Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

Lawmakers and ministers will meet on Saturday to discuss the water contamination crisis which has triggered the protests, parliament said in a statement.

Mehdi al-Tamimi, head of Basra's human rights council, said nine demonstrators have been killed since Tuesday in clashes with security forces as anger boils over after the hospitalization of 30,000 people who had drunk polluted water.

"We're thirsty, we're hungry, we are sick and abandoned," protester Ali Hussein told AFP Friday after another night of violence. 

"Demonstrating is a sacred duty and all honest people ought to join." 

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and key ministers are to attend Saturday's parliament session, which was demanded by populist cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political bloc won the largest number of seats in May elections although a new government has yet to be formed.

The rare assault by unidentified attackers on the Green Zone, which houses parliament, government offices and the U.S. embassy, caused no casualties or damage, Baghdad's security chief said.

Sadr, whose supporters held protests inside the Green Zone in 2016 to condemn corruption among Iraqi officials, called for "demonstrations of peaceful anger" in Basra after the main weekly Muslim prayers on Friday.

And the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, in his Friday sermon denounced "the bad behavior of senior officials" and called for the next government to be "different from its predecessors."

In Basra, the epicenter of protests that have rocked Iraq since July, demonstrators on Thursday set fire to the local government headquarters and both political party and militia offices.

- 'Government doesn't care' -

The fire spread across Basra's massive government complex, with witnesses saying it tore through offices housing state TV channel Iraqiya.

The nearby governor's residence was also set ablaze, AFP journalists reported.

At least 24 people have been killed in the demonstrations since they erupted in Basra on July 8.

Human rights activists have accused the security forces of opening fire on the demonstrators, while the government has blamed provocateurs in the crowds and said troops have been ordered not to use live rounds.

Rights group Amnesty International on Friday denounced "the use of excessive force by security forces", who it said had used live fire against demonstrators for the second time since July. 

Amnesty researcher Razaw Salihy called on Abadi to stick to his promise of conducting an investigation into the deaths and to bring those responsible "to justice in fair trials."

Ali Saad, a 25-year-old at a rally on Thursday attended by thousands of demonstrators, said the government was treating protesters as "vandals."

"Nobody (here) is a vandal. The people are fed up, so yes they throw stones and burn tires because nobody cares," he told AFP.

Ahmed Kazem, who was also at the protest, urged leaders to respond to the demands of the demonstrators "so that the situation doesn't degenerate."

The 42-year-old said their demands included "public services, water, electricity and jobs."

- 'Intentional policy of neglect' -

For Tamimi, the anger on Basra streets was "in response to the government's intentional policy of neglect" of the oil-rich region.

"We've been warning the authorities about this for a long time," he said.

Abadi has scrambled to defuse the anger and authorities have pledged a multi-billion dollar emergency plan to revive infrastructure and services in southern Iraq.

But Iraqis remain deeply skeptical as the country remains in a state of political limbo.

Shiite cleric Sadr on Thursday called for politicians to present "radical and immediate" solutions at the emergency meeting of parliament or step down if they fail to do so.

Abadi, for his part, is trying to hold onto his post in the future government through forming an alliance with Sadr, a former militia chief who has called for Iraq to have greater political independence from both neighboring Iran and the United States.

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