BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) – About 100 protesters demanding jobs and better services from Iraq’s leaders closed access to Umm Qasr commodities port near the southern city of Basra on Friday, port employees said.
After nearly a week of demonstrations, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, expressed solidarity with residents, saying they faced an “extreme lack of public services” such as electricity in the suffocating summer heat.
“We can only stand with our dear citizens in their demands as we feel their great suffering,” Sistani said through an aide during a Friday sermon heard on live television.
Sistani rarely intervenes in politics but has wide sway over public opinion.
A port worker said the road leading into the terminal was blocked and trucks had no way of getting in or out. Port officials told employees to go home.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was holding talks with officials in the oil-exporting city of Basra to discuss the unrest.
Basra oil officials have said the protests, which have also taken place near major oilfields, have not impacted crude production.
PROTESTERS THREATEN MORE ACTION
Oil exports from Basra account for more than 95 percent of OPEC producer Iraq’s state revenues.
Any potential disruptions to production could severely impact the country’s limping economy. Umm Qasr receives Iraq’s grain, vegetable oils and sugar shipments.
“We will not stop until our demands are met,” said Mohammed Jabbar, 29, an unemployed college graduate.
“If they don’t create jobs and improve services such as water and electricity we will close down Basra and oil production.”
Iraq’s government will be hard-pressed to improve life in Basra, a crumbling city once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its network of canals resembling the Italian city.
Iraq needs tens of billions of dollars to rebuild after a three-year war with Islamic State.
Iraqi politicians cannot afford any serious escalation in Basra as they try to form a coalition government after a May 12 parliamentary election tainted by allegations of fraud.
Long neglected, Basra is one of the few cities in the Middle East without an effective water treatment system. Many of its waterways are stagnant cesspools. State officials blame a public funding crisis caused by years of low oil prices.
People like 34-year-old Nuri Malik, unemployed for ten years, have lost patience.
“Unless our demands are met, we will take steps to escalate. We will stop the activities of oil companies and will not allow them to hire foreigners,” Malik said.
Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Dale Hudson