Iraqi PM admits corruption may be factor in Basra unrest

Contaminated water has caused over 60,000 Basra hospital admissions in the past month

Iraqi riot police stand guard while demonstrators gather outside Basra police directorate demanding the release of detained protesters in Basra, 340 miles (550 km) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)
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After months of protest and thousands admitted to Basra hospitals with waterborne illness, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has conceded that corruption may have played a part in the southern province's escalating health crisis, and has launched an investigation.

The incumbent premier faces calls to step down in the face of spreading southern unrest and an epidemic of illness which has been blamed on a lack of clean drinking water.

Mr Al Abadi said he "asked the Integrity Commission to launch an investigation into the delays that have affected a number of infrastructure projects in Basra and other southern provinces,” referring to the government body tasked with fighting corruption.

“We need to establish if corruption has played a role in the crisis that Basra is currently encountering,” Mr Al Abadi said.

Residents in Basra are adamant that the breakdown in public services is caused by corruption and years of neglect by the central government. Poor governance has been linked to many of Iraqi’s problems, with international bodies routinely ranking the country poorly on lists of failing states.

The prime minister has been criticised for being slow to react to the mounting crisis, though he previously ordered the removal of makeshift dams which impeded water flow to Basra.

Basra’s heath authorities announced on Wednesday that over 60,000 people have been admitted to hospitals over illnesses contracted from polluted drinking water over the past month.

Most patients report stomach pains and the majority are treated and discharged within hours, Alaa Hashim, director of Basra's Health Ministry, told The National.

The pollution of Basra's water supply has added fuel to ongoing protests against poor services.

The UN's human rights office says it is worried by the escalation of street protests since July, when at least 11 people have been killed according to Ministry of Health figures.

This brings the number of people who have died to at least 20 since demonstrations began on July 8. More than 300 people have been injured and hundreds of protesters have been arrested since then, watchdog group Human Rights Watch reports.

The unrest has also spread to attacks on foreign installations including the Iranian consulate which was burned by rioters, and the US consulate which has been targeted by rocket fire.

The ongoing crisis reduces Mr Abadi's chances of retaining the premiership, as political parties continue negotiating to form a new government months after the May 12 general election. Last week the prime minister insisted he would not "cling to power".

Meanwhile, a prominent Baghdad football club cancelled the first match of its season on Monday after ten of its players were admitted to hospital.

The Al Hussein team traveled 600 kilometres south to play against Naft Al Junoob in the Iraqi Premier League, but before kick off much of the team was hospitalised after they were believed to have been poisoned by contaminated water.

"With 10 players and two members of the management team spending the night in hospital... [we negotiated] a postponement of the match with Naft Al Junoob" after agreement from the Iraq Football Association, manager Fadhel Zaghir said.

The visiting club had taken precautions ahead of Monday's fixture, Mr Zaghir said.

"We brought a lot of mineral water with us from Baghdad but it seems the water used by the players to wash themselves and their clothes was polluted," he said.

No new date has been set for the match and the team remained in Basra because the players were too unwell to travel back to Baghdad.


Read more:

Abadi sacks Iraq's electricity minister after protests

Basra health crisis: 17,000 admitted to hospitals for water poisoning 

Iraq protests persist with government slow to offer solutions