Demonstrators push down concrete blast walls of the government office building in Basra, Iraq, this week. Reuters
Iraq’s main seaport closed down yesterday following clashes between protesters and security forces in the nearby southern city of Basra in which one demonstrator died and 25 were injured the previous night.

Southern Iraq, heartland of the country’s Shia majority, has erupted in unrest in recent weeks as protesters expressed rage over collapsing infrastructure, power cuts and corruption.

Port employees said that all operations had ceased yesterday morning at Umm Qasr Port - the main lifeline for grain and other commodity imports that feed the country - after protesters blocked the entrance. Trucks and staff were unable to get in or out of the complex. Officials announced a citywide curfew would be in place after 3pm local time, but cancelled it just as it was due to come into force.

A senior security source said that a heavy deployment of security forces - including members of the rapid response team - would be on patrol in Basra to enforce the curfew and impose calm.

Residents in Basra, a city of more than 2 million people, say the water supply has become contaminated with salt, making them vulnerable and desperate in the hot summer months. Hundreds of people have been hospitalised from drinking it.

A health ministry spokesperson told a news conference in Baghdad that 6280 people had been recently hospitalised with diarrhoea due to the over-salinated water.

The protesters began blocking the entrance to the port, which lies about 60km from Basra, on Wednesday. They also blocked the highway from Basra to Baghdad and set fire to the main provincial government building where they had been demonstrating for a third night.

Public anger has grown at a time when politicians are struggling to form a new government after an inconclusive parliamentary election in May. Residents of the south complain of decades of neglect in the region that produces the bulk of Iraq’s oil wealth.

Leading political figures, embroiled in government formation negotiations in Baghdad, have scrambled to respond to the intensifying crisis, condemning rivals for inaction.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss the unrest and ordered the interior ministry to conduct an immediate investigation.

At a news conference yesterday, Muqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shia cleric whose electoral bloc came first in May’s national election, called for an emergency televised session of parliament to discuss the crisis in Basra, a city “without water, electricity or dignity”.

Iraq’s second-biggest city is a stronghold of Sadr, who has recast himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and allied himself with Abadi.

The prime minister said he would be ready to attend a meeting of parliament to try to find a resolution. Reuters