BASRA/ERBIL, Iraq (REUTERS) - Protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Iraq's southern city of Basra on Friday (Sept 7), turning their wrath on Iraq's powerful neighbour after five days of deadly demonstrations in which government buildings have been ransacked and torched.
Demonstrators broke in and began damaging the offices, shouting condemnation of what many Iraqis perceive as Iran's sway over Iraq's political parties. Security sources said the consulate was empty when the crowd burst in.
The storming came hours after Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric called for a political shakeup in Baghdad and a halt to violence against the protesters.
Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the ultimate authority for devout members of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, placed blame for the unrest with political leaders and said a new government should be formed, "different from its predecessors".
At least 10 protesters have died, mostly in clashes with the security forces, since Monday in Basra, a city of two million people. Residents say they have been driven to the streets by corruption and misrule that allowed infrastructure to collapse, leaving no power or safe drinking water in the heat of summer.
The unrest could have deeper implications for a country that imports most of its food. Since Thursday protesters have shut Iraq's only major sea port at Umm Qasr, 60km south of Basra. It remained shut on Friday, local officials and security sources said, although oil exports, carried out from offshore platforms, have not been affected.
Smaller protests in solidarity with Basra took place in several other cities including Karbala and Baghdad.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's national security council met on Friday and said it was investigating casualties at the protests. Abadi, under pressure to promise more money to fix Basra's public services, said funds that had previously been allocated would be released.
More than 2,000 people, including many women, gathered in Basra on Friday afternoon, to mourn a protester who died from burns during the torching of the provincial government headquarters overnight.
Mourners carried the body from his house through the streets to the singed government building, chanting: "This is a promise, this is a promise, Basra won't stay silent anymore!"
Some fired live rounds into the air. Others carried broomsticks, to "sweep clean" corrupt officials. Protesters set fire to what remained of the government buildings torched the night before.
'FAILINGS OF LEADERS'
The unrest has thrust Iraq into a major new crisis at a time when politicians still have yet to agree a new government after an inconclusive election in May. The new parliament finally met on Monday for the first time, but broke up after a day with no faction assembling enough votes to elect a speaker, much less name the next prime minister.
Sistani, an 88-year-old cleric who normally holds himself above day-to-day politics, has been known to intervene in political affairs when he sees the country's future in danger.
In his Friday prayer sermon read out by an aide he demanded an end to the use of violence against "peaceful protests" and placed the blame firmly on politicians.
"The failings of Iraqi political leaders in recent years have caused the anger of people in Basra," Sistani said. "This reality cannot change if the next government is formed according to the same criteria adopted when forming previous governments. Pressure must be exerted for the new government to be different from its predecessors."
Parliament's interim leader summoned lawmakers to an emergency session on Saturday to discuss the unrest.
The past four years saw Iraq's political factions mainly come together during a war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Baghdad's two most influential allies, Washington and Teheran, also backed the government despite their deep hostility to each other.
But since ISIS was largely defeated last year, divisions have resurfaced. Shi'ites in the south, where most of Iraq's oil wealth is produced, say Baghdad politicians have squandered state funds while leaving them desperate.
Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist Shi'ite cleric whose electoral bloc came first in May's election, said on Twitter that Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi must release more funds for Basra.
Sadr, the former leader of an anti-American Shi'ite sectarian militia who has reinvented himself as an anti-corruption campaigner, has allied himself with Abadi.
Their alliance is competing to form a government against a rival bloc backed by Abadi's predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and the leader of an Iran-backed Shi'ite armed group, Hadi al-Amiri. Amiri called on Abadi to resign over the crisis on Friday.