BAGHDAD: Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr has called for “radical” solutions to a health crisis which has sparked mass rallies and left seven protesters dead this week.
Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the southern city of Basra, angry at pollution of the water supply which has put 30,000 people in hospital.
Seven demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces since Tuesday, while protesters set fire to part of the provincial government headquarters.
Sadr, whose political bloc won the largest number of seats in May elections, on Thursday called for a special parliamentary session to address protesters’ concerns.
Prime Minister Haider Abadi, along with the ministers of interior, health, housing, water resources and electricity, must all attend along with officials from Basra province, Sadr said.
“We will be uncompromising and you have been warned, be ready,” said Sadr, whose successful campaign in the May election focused on tackling Iraq’s endemic corruption.
Politicians must present “radical and immediate” solutions at the meeting or step down if they fail to do so, he said.
Abadi responded shortly afterwards, saying he was “ready to attend a parliamentary session with the ministers and officials concerned, to discuss the situation and the needs of Basra province.”
The premier is trying to hold onto his post in the future government through forming an alliance with Sadr, a former militia chief who has called for Iraq to have greater political independence from Iran and the US.
Despite Iraq holding elections nearly five months ago, Parliament reconvened for the first time on Monday after claims of fraud triggered a vote recount.
The session was brief and lawmakers are not scheduled to meet again until Sept. 15, in order to allow the various political blocs time to agree on alliances and on a candidate for parliamentary speaker.
Ahead of Abadi and other top officials meeting to discuss the social unrest, Sadr called for “protests expressing anger peacefully” in Basra and said plans for such rallies would be announced soon.
As well as the water supply, demonstrators have protested against incompetent officials who have failed to tackle chronic electricity shortages and high unemployment in their oil-rich but marginalized province.
At least 22 people have been killed in demonstrations since they erupted in Basra on July 8, before spreading across southern Iraq.
Protesters stormed and set fire to a provincial government building in Basra, despite a curfew imposed by authorities on Thursday to try and quell demonstrations.
The protests showed no sign of abating Thursday evening as hundreds of young men took to the streets, shouting: “Peaceful, peaceful.”
Several government buildings have been attacked in the past few days of protests that have spread throughout the city.
A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Arabian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official would not say when operations will resume.
Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, Interior Ministry spokesman, announced a curfew in Basra starting at 3 p.m. on Thursday, citing “intelligence reports of possible attacks on government offices.”
The government has said the protesters’ demands are legitimate, while blaming the violence on saboteurs. The curfew announcement was ignored.