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Update On Protests In Basra


We're going to turn now to Iraq and the political unrest in the second-largest city of Basra. It's a port town near huge oil reserves. Anti-government protests have been going on there all summer. Last week, protesters set fire to political offices, and security forces killed several people. NPR's Jane Arraf is in Basra, and she joins us now.

Jane, can you just start off by telling us what's behind this?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Sure. I think the thing we have to know first is that Basra is really Iraq's economic lifeline. Most of the oil exports go through here. It has the main commodity port, but it's also been battered by successive wars and neglect for decades. So after the U.S. invasion in 2003, it fell under militia control. There was rampant corruption. And now you have a situation where it's summertime, 120 degrees outside. There are electricity cuts, no jobs. And you turn on the tap and contaminated water comes out. So thousands of young men have taken to the streets.

MARTIN: Who are they directing their ire at?

ARRAF: Pretty much everyone - government leaders, foreign countries, particularly Iran - which is surprising because Iran is a very strong ally of Iraq. If you listen to some of the chants from the protests here, you'll hear them saying they want all political parties out of Iraq.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

ARRAF: So they're saying, yes to Iraq; we want political parties to leave Basra. And they describe this as the start of a revolution. This is how one protester, Ahmed Ali (ph), put it.

NASSER JABAR: We are tired of their killing. We are tired of their corruption. All the parties in the government now - they are corrupted, all of them. There is no exception. We want to change them.

ARRAF: And he and others say it wasn't the protesters who burned government buildings. They say it was people infiltrating the protest. They say they want to rebuild and not destroy.

MARTIN: Well, there's a new Iraqi Parliament that's supposed to meet soon to form a new government. I imagine these protests are going to have some kind of effect on that.

ARRAF: Yeah, they already have in fact. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who, by the way, is backed by the United States, has been struggling to contain this. He fired two heads of security forces and promised to release money for Basra. But some of his former political parties seem to have turned against him. And it's not clear he'll be able to keep his job.

MARTIN: You mentioned that al-Abadi is backed by the U.S. There's another U.S. connection here. The White House issued a statement yesterday blaming Iran for not doing more to stop an attack on the U.S. consulate in Basra. What else can you tell us about that?

ARRAF: So this was a rocket attack on the Basra airport and a mortar attack in the Green Zone in Baghdad last week. According to Iraqi security officials, they didn't land on the U.S. Embassy or consulate compounds. There were no injuries or serious damage. The White House, though, in a statement, called them life-threatening attacks against its diplomatic missions. It warned Iran that there would be serious consequences for any attacks injuring its personnel or damaging its property.

The Iranian Consulate in Basra, though, was also attacked last week. Yesterday, Iran inaugurated a new consulate here. I spoke to the Iranian ambassador afterwards, and he blamed the U.S. - and specifically President Trump - for destroying years of what he called good relations between Iran and the U.S.

So it's a very complicated picture here. But a lot of people are worried that this tension between the U.S. and Iran will engulf Iraq as well.

MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf reporting from the Iraqi port city of Basra.

Thanks so much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly identify protester Nasser Jabar as Ahmed Ali. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 17, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly identify protester Nasser Jabar as Ahmed Ali.