Iraqi cleric calls for parliament session on Basra clashes

Iraq’s popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday called for an urgent parliamentary session to discuss the situation in the southern city of Basra, where protests against poor public services and joblessness have turned violent, prompting authorities to impose a curfew.

Nine civilians have been killed since the start of the month in confrontations between demonstrators and police, according to Iraq’s Independent High Commission for Human Rights, which said another 93 civilians and 18 security forces were injured.

In a televised speech, al-Sadr said the parliament session should be held no later than Sunday, and that the prime minister and other officials should either attend the session or resign.

The populist cleric’s supporters won the most seats in national elections held earlier this year, but Iraq’s feuding factions have yet to form a new government.

A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, wouldn’t say when operations will resume.

Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, Interior Ministry spokesman, announced a curfew in Basra starting at 3 p.m. 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.

Residents of Basra and other cities in Iraq’s southern Shiite heartland have been protesting since July over endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and poor public services. Clashes erupted earlier this week, leaving several civilians and police dead. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence.

Basra is Iraq’s second-largest province and home to about 70 percent of the OPEC member’s vast oil reserves.

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Associated Press writer Nabil al-Jurani in Basra contributed.

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