Basra protesters atop a billboard last Friday. (photo: جيتي)
The southern city of Basra had been slow to take part in the anti-government protests that have rocked Iraq recently – perhaps because last year, the city led the protests and demonstrators there feared further crackdowns.
But as of October 25, the city’s residents were fully taking part in the nationwide demonstrations, protesting about a lack of jobs and state services as well as corruption.
Last Friday, marches began in the city, with protesters proceeding through the streets until they ended up in front of the provincial government headquarters.
How can I sleep? she replied. I know there are young people on the streets, demanding our rights. This is the least I can do.
Basra’s governor, Asaad al-Eidani, surprised locals by pre-empting events with a press conference. During this, al-Eidani said that security forces would only be present inside the government buildings but not outside. The exteriors would be protected by peaceful protesters, he said.
The government buildings were then decorated with Iraqi flags and the main gates closed, in order to keep a distance between special anti-riot troops and protesters.
By midday on Friday, the crowds had grown and there was pressure from within it to enter the government offices. However a group of young people formed a human barrier to prevent others from climbing the walls. A military convoy was sent out to separate the protesters from the walls but the soldiers in it were unarmed. They greeted the locals and saluted them, as if to send the message that the army was supportive of the demonstrators’ demands. Some in the crowds gave the soldiers flowers and posed for selfies with them.
However the peace didn’t last. Over the next three hours, the crowd grew angrier and some started to throw projectiles – bottles, stones, shoes, water – at the anti-riot troops in the courtyard of the provincial council offices. As the sun set, clashes intensified and the troops tasked with keeping protesters out of the government property fired tear gas and set off smoke bombs.
At some stage later in the evening, the lights in the area were all turned off. Military vehicles then left the government buildings at speed, driving past the demonstrators who threw rocks at the cars. Some of the security staffers were injured by the missiles and one of the drivers lost control of his vehicle, ploughing into the crowd. Dozens of the protesters were injured and the accident fuelled widespread anger, especially after a video of the incident was shared on social media.
After this accident, angry demonstrators gathered around the vehicle, apparently in order to take revenge on the soldiers still inside the car. However the youth committees who had been tasked with keeping the peace were able to intervene, pulling the injured driver out and taking him for medical treatment. The five other soldiers remained inside the vehicle, afraid for their lives. However one of the young peacekeepers suggested they change into civilian clothes. The soldiers changed into these and were able to make their way out of the angry crowd.
By this stage, the demonstration had devolved into chaos. Security forces began firing bullets into the air as well as shooting off more tear gas. Smoke and tear gas filled the air and the protesters began to disperse, fearing arrest. Many fled into the Janiniyah and Andalus neighbourhoods where they were surprised to see open doors – locals there offered food, shelter and medical treatment and hid the protesters indoors for several hours, until it was safe for them to go home again.
At the moment, it is unclear how many deaths and injured there might have been in Basra. “Iraq's semi-official Human Rights Commission also put the death toll at 30, and said more than 2,000 protesters had been wounded” news organization, Al Jazeera, reported.
The local military then imposed a curfew in the city. However around a hundred protesters defied this and remained outdoors in the Janiniyah area. While they were there, an older woman, known only as Um Abbas, arrived together with her teenage son. She had bags of sandwiches and juice that she distributed to the remaining demonstrators.
One of them asked her why she was there, potentially endangering her own life. “How can I sleep?” she replied. “I know there are young people on the streets, demanding our rights. This is the least I can do.”