A sense of calm has returned to Iraq’s southern city of Basra after a week of violent protests over unemployment and poor public services that left at least 15 people dead.
Troops sent from Baghdad have reinforced police and government offices and markets reopened after a quiet night. Municipality workers were out in force cleaning up the streets and carting away debris from the clashes.
The oil-rich region and other cities in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland have been rocked by the most serious protests in years, with residents complaining of power outages, filthy tap water and soaring unemployment.
In recent days, protesters have attacked government offices, political party headquarters and the Iranian consulate. Many blame their woes on neighbouring Iran’s outsized influence on Iraqi politics and are calling for radical change.
On Saturday, a spokesman for an alliance of powerful Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, vowed to respond against “those who are carrying out acts of arson and sabotage”.
The local commander, known as Abu Yasser al-Jaafari, said the lack of response so far should not be taken as a sign of weakness.
Hours later, masked government troops in combat fatigues deployed in the city, setting up checkpoints and riding through the city centre in black pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted in the back.
Iraq is still without a new government nearly four months after national elections in which no party won a majority. Rival parliamentary blocs — one seen as friendlier to the US and the other closely allied with Iran — each claim to have assembled a governing coalition. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, part of the pro-US bloc, and Basra’s governor have traded blame for the crisis.
Iraq’s government has scrambled to meet the growing demand for public services and jobs, but has been hindered by years of endemic corruption and a financial crisis fueled by diminished oil revenues and the costly war against the Islamic State group.
Basra is Iraq’s second-largest province and home to about 70% of the country’s proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels. It is located on the Persian Gulf bordering Kuwait and Iran, and is Iraq’s only hub for oil exports.