BAGHDAD: The discovery of four bodies dumped in a street in central Basra on Saturday morning sent shockwaves through the city.
The four men were identified as followers of Muqtada Al-Sadr, the powerful Iraqi cleric who has masterminded an anti-Iranian coalition poised to take control of the country’s Parliament.
Two of the dead had participated in the protests that started as a new wave of demonstrations against woeful services and corruption in the province that provides most of Iraq’s oil.
But the demonstrations spiraled into a chaotic week of clashes that killed at least 15 people, left the Iranian consulate and other political buildings ablaze and Iraq facing its latest political and security crisis as the country struggles to regain its feet after the war with Daesh.
Security officials and prominent figures in Basra told Arab News that the protests have been hijacked to provide cover for political and armed conflict between the pro and anti-Iranian rivals competing to control the next administration.
Security sources also accused Iran of attempting to sow chaos, disrupt oil exports and pave the way for an administration in Baghdad that supports Tehran.
A second wave of US sanctions will come into effect in November targeting Iranian oil exports and dealing another blow to the country’s ailing economy.
Shiite leaders and security officials suggest Tehran is attempting to encourage fighting between factions to destabilize Basra because the province could be the source of crude that would make up the shortfall on global markets left when Iranian exports are disrupted.
The discovery of the four bodies was reminiscent of the violence that erupted in the country after the 2003 US invasion. Except this time the conflict lines are not Sunni and Shiite, but between the Shiite factions that divide along the lines of pro and anti-Iran. The pro-Iran groups were significantly bolstered during the Daesh occupation when thousands of fighters were mobilized to help the military halt the extremists’ advance.
Tehran poured in money and weapons, leaving the groups as some of the country’s strongest military and political forces. Now they have become a key tool in the battle between the US and Iran, which has played out in Iraq since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
Those Iran-backed groups contested the parliamentary election in May as part of the Al-Fattah alliance, which has been desperately trying to put together a coalition of MPs that would be able to form the next government.
But Al-Sadr, who is backed by the US, has been in the stronger position after his Sairoon alliance won the most seats.
Both coalitions claimed they had formed the largest bloc last week and asked to be registered at the first session of the Parliament on Monday. The matter was sent to the supreme federal court to be settled.
In June, soon after the election, demonstrations started in Basra to protest against the lack of electricity and clean drinking water and a lack of jobs. They spread across southern Iraq and even reached Baghdad.
But they lost momentum and turned into small, scattered sit-ins. The situation suddenly erupted on Monday when hundreds of demonstrators, some using Molotov cocktails, tried to storm the local government building in Basra. Police responded with live bullets and tear gas, seriously injuring two. One of the injured died of his wounds hours later.
The next day, the situation became more serious when a demonstrator attacked a group of police with a grenade, killing one of the officers and injuring eight others. Other groups attacked troops stationed near the local government building and by the end of the day, nine demonstrators were shot dead and scores wounded, including many members of the security forces. A number of governmental buildings were also set on fire.
On Thursday, troops deployed in Basra received orders not to clash with protesters as long as they remained away from oil facilities. This encouraged the demonstrators to attack and burn more than 20 buildings acting as headquarters to various political groups and their associated media stations.
The next day, the burning continued, and ended with the torching of the Iranian consulate building in south-eastern Basra.
The attack has been seen by many as anger finally boiling over at Iranian interference in their country.
Most of the heads of tribes, local activists and politicians called for people to withdraw from the demonstrations after they turned violent.
Many have referred to “masked” demonstrators leading the masses to carry out the attacks on the buildings without knowing their identity.
“As the demonstrations turned to be violent and infiltrators joined it, we ask all our sons to withdraw,” Sheikh Adil Al-Mayah, the head of Mayah tribe, said.
The different factions have traded blame over who has been driving the riots. Because of its crude production of more than 3.5 million barrels per day, destabilizing security in Basra is in the interests of many local and regional parties.
Several Shiite political leaders accused the followers of Al-Sadr, saying that the headquarters of his movement were not affected.
But witnesses told Arab News that the demonstrators had tried to burn the base for his movement’s armed wing, Sarraya Al-Salam, but were blocked by unarmed Sadrists who had formed a human barrier.
“We know that they accuse us of carrying out these fires, even though they know that we stood up to the saboteurs and said that they should burn us first before burning the building,” Sa’ad Al-Maliki, a Sadrist leader in Basra, told Arab News.
“They also say that no one dares to burn the Iranian consulate other than us, but the fact is that we are surprised by what is happening and wonder who has the nerve to burn the headquarters of some armed factions that people are usually scared just to mention by name.”
The headquarters of Badr organization and Assaib Ahl Al-Haq, the most prominent Shiite armed factions, were among those burned without any resistance. The same scenario was repeated with the Iranian consulate, which was stormed by the demonstrators and set on fire without a single bullet fired to defend it.
“The situation is complicated and many parties are involved in creating this mess,” a senior federal security official told Arab News. “We have some indications that the burning of the Iranian consulate and many other headquarters were managed and served a specific purpose.”
Local and federal security officials contacted by Arab News said that the consulate building was empty and was completely evacuated on Thursday, and even the private guards of the consulate were pulled out on Friday.
A senior security official told Arab News that a Twitter account belonging to a well-known Iraqi close to Iran may have been directing the attackers.
There were more worrying developments on Saturday when Basra airport was targeted by rocket fire. No one was harmed and it was unclear who was responsible.
A curfew was imposed on Saturday afternoon to try and stem the violence. Troops deployed in Basra received orders to open fire on anyone who attacks security forces or government institutions.
At the same time, Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who is trying to secure a second term, replaced the police and security operations commanders in Basra.
Al-Sadr has resumed negotiations with the leaders of Al-Fattah “to find a compromise to defuse the crisis,” politicians familiar with the talks told Arab News.