Iraq protesters vow to push on as authorities clear Basra sit-in site

The decision to remove the protests encampment in Basra comes as authorities in Baghdad cleared Tahrir Square and opened major bridges

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Activists in Iraq’s south have vowed to continue their reform protests after skirmishes with government security forces, who moved to clear sit-in camps in the port city of Basra on Saturday night.

Despite the efforts of security forces to clear away protest encampments, protesters gathered again on Sunday afternoon, denouncing the takeover of the Bahria Square the previous evening, the epicenter of the Basra protests, according to protester Hussain Al Saedi.

“We were surprised by the big number of security forces in the square,” Mr Al Saedi added. “We chanted slogans and skirmishes erupted,” the 23-year old protester added.

Security forces fired live rounds and tear gas, beating the protesters with batons, he continued. He believes that up 40 protesters were arrested.

Another protester, Ahmed Ali, said he had seen at least two protesters wounded.

Security forces are now controlling the protests encampment and the protesters are planning another march today, he said.

Basra has been protesting since 2018 demanding jobs, better public services and an end to corruption. The protests became widespread when other demonstrations erupted in October last year in Baghdad and provinces in the Shiite heartland.

Among other demands, Iraq’s year-long protests have been calling for an overhaul to the political system that has been in place since 2003 US-led invasion and early elections based on a new voting law that gives the chance for independent candidates to reach parliament.

More than 550 activists and protesters have been killed during confrontations with security forces or assassinated by unknown gunmen, while dozens of others have fled the country. Tens of thousands were wounded, with many suffering life-changing injuries.

Basra activists shared videos on social media showing bulldozers removing some tents and blocks as security forces fired tear gas at the stone-throwing protesters. Tents were seen on fire, but it was not clear how they caught alight.

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“We will not retreat,” protester Ahmed Ali said on his Twitter account.

He said another march would be organised for Sunday to “decry the suppression”.

No casualties were reported during Saturday night’s confrontations.

Oil-rich Basra is Iraq’s second-largest city and sits on about 70 per cent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels. It borders Iran and Kuwait and it is Iraq’s only outlet to the seas through the Arabian Gulf.

Its more than five million residents have been complaining that they do not get their fair share of the natural resources in the province. As in many cities, decades of war, corruption and mismanagement have left the province in poor condition.

A year since the protests broke out, some activists say a moment of truth has arrived.

"We have to admit that we have achieved nothing and it will be hard to do so through such protests that have been infiltrated by the political parties," activist Samir Rahim Al Maliki told The National from Basra.

“The political parties and parliament are still there, and we will not be able to change them simply because they are backed by regional and international countries.”

The bulk of Iraq’s parliament is made up of Shiite parties that have ties to the country’s militias – officially called the Popular Mobilisation Forces – that are supported by Iran.

Mr Al Maliki suggests another approach.

“I believe the only way out for Basra is to establish a self-ruled region akin to the northern Kurdish one and that we need to forget about October protests for now,” he said.

“In this case, we will have our own parliament, a government that has a say on developing resources and a bigger share in the federal budget,” he continued.

Since 1992, northern Iraq’s Kurdish region has enjoyed a level of autonomy – confirmed in the country’s 2005 federal constitution – with its own security apparatus, legislative bodies, tax policies and education systems.

The decision to remove the protest encampment in Basra comes as authorities in Baghdad cleared Tahrir Square and opened major bridges that lead to the fortified Green Zone where key government offices and western embassies are located.

The process went smoothly in Bagdad, where the sit-ins were smaller, without confrontations.